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Agricultural history and sustainable systems

Albert Howard's compostingThe green revolution, peak oil, sustainable building, and water stewardship formed the themes for this week's selection of Folks, This Ain't Normal.  I found the first to be the most interesting, with Salatin's history of chemical fertilizers stemming from war-era scientific advances butting up against Sir Albert Howard's studies of composting in India using cheap manpower.  If you're only going to read one chapter for ideas and book recommendations, "The Poop, The Whole Poop, and Nothing But the Poop" would be my top choice so far.

Salatin's compost operationThe other chapters suffered more from Salatin's general inability to stay on topic and from his wish to alienate everybody at least once during each essay.  But I did find his theories on both energy and water stewardship fascinating --- Salatin posited that if we were personally involved in acquiring energy and water and if systems were designed on small, local scales, we'd have healthier environments and better societies.

What jumped out at you in this week's chapters?  Feel free to head back to the first and second weeks' selections to comment as well if your book recently showed up.  And don't forget to read chapters 14, 15, and 16 (up through "Scientific Mythology") for next Wednesday.  Thanks for reading along!

The Weekend Homesteader presents fun and easy projects for building your own sustainable systems, from rain barrels to gardens.


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"Chemical" fertilizers very much predate the second world war. In England saltpeter from Chile was used from the 1830's onwards. The Haber-Bosch process to make ammonia (a precursor to both fertilizers and explosives) was first industrialized in 1913.
Comment by Roland_Smith Wed Dec 12 14:51:50 2012

Hi,

An interesting piece of history is Julius Hensel's Bread from stones. Basically German chemical producers killed his ground stone fertilizer business and tried to find and burn all copies of this book!

The book is an open pdf on the web and a very worthwhile read.

I have found granite meal / dust to be VERY effective fertilizer with some farmers I help.

John

Comment by john Wed Dec 12 15:19:43 2012
Roland --- I think he really meant the large-scale production and use of chemical fertilizers. I was summarizing drastically, as usual. :-)
Comment by anna Wed Dec 12 15:37:36 2012

Ultimately, nothing is truly sustanable, given the eventual "Heat Death of the Universe." When we harvest a crop, nutrients are carried away and deposited elsewhere eventualy. Those must be replaced to maintain fertility in the land.

The minerals are easily supplied from inorganic sources. The N is most difficult to supply. When manure is the source, you're really only transferring N from one field to another, and with it the potential for contamination by Salmonella, E.coli, etc. (all engineering solutions involve compromises.) Use of artifical, industrially produced N fertilizer avoids using up more fields (pasture) to obtain naturally produced N-fixation.

With modern ag techniques, yield is greatly enhanced, so loss of nutrients carried away by the harvestr is also increased, meaning greater fertilization rates are required to maintain fertility. If you wanna build more cars, you gotta buy more steel.

For hobbyists like me or self-sufficiency folks like you, squeezing every last corn kernel out of the field for the market is not important. For the pro farmer, it makes the difference for profitability and staying in business and feeding the world or of quitting and letting the masses starve.

Comment by doc Sat Dec 15 06:25:33 2012