Thursday, November 29, 2018

A Talking Around Technology Appendix To Postblogging Technology, September, 1948: Malthus, Soil and Farming

Last time around, I emphasised that there was a "culture-involved talking around technology" issue bound up the discussion of Malthus, ecological collapse, and agricultural productivity in 1948. I could probably frame this in a satisfactorily academic way if I kept up with the literature better, but I'm only human, and, specifically, a human being who worked thirteen of the last fourteen days. Specifically, of course, this is a discussion of agricultural technology. Sorry, no jet fighters. 

"Malthus" here, it seems to me, is, whatever else we make of him as an economic theorist, a way of saying "brown people upset me" without actually saying it. This is a tough thing to say, given that Malthus is also an economic theorist with horse sense to share about what "Hard Times" are, and how they come around. Which is good, considering that there's a tendency in economics to be objectively pro-Hard Times.

"Broke, baby sick and car trouble." By Dorothy Lange

As you might guess, I'm playing with "Hard Times" as a synonym for "a business cycle depression," because I am referencing Stephen Foster's Hard Times Come Again No More. Because I am old, and do not do the Youtube thing very well, it was news to me that  is now the iconic American air. But it is, and I am shoving that amazing fact in the face of fellow old people by embedding the orchestral version from Civilisation VI. Which I will play the moment they get rid of that off-putting, cartoonish art style. 

I do, however, have a faintly logical argument for trying to rehistoricise the concept of a recession, here. After five years of following the business news of the 1940s, it is hardly any surprise that the Malthus/ecological catastrophe nexus that was explored at the American Association for the Advancement of Science is framed by "the Dust Bowl." When the crops failed and the soil flew across a vast area of the southern plains (and not the northern plains, so please try to dissociate "Kansas" and "Dust Bowl") "Hard Times" were forever defined and redefined in the American mind. It was not just the hardships of the actual Dust Bowl. It was also the fact that the  "Okies" fled to California. It is taking all that I have to refrain from embedding either the intro to The Beverley Hillbillies or Al Jolson singing "California Here I Come," ideally in blackface, here. What a conjunction of American myth!

Myth is a powerful tool for integrating the past into a comprehensible narrative. I swear that Conan the Conqueror is a retelling of the 1934 California gubernatorial election, with Xaltotun standing in for Upton Sinclair and Conan for FDR. (Hoover only got to be Kull, which is why Kull is so lame.) I sense that this might be a hard argument to make, but it's something you can do with myth. 

What you should not do with myth is use it as a way of thinking about science.


Having emphasised the Dust Bowl, it's worth remembering that at the time, it was just another (perceived) ecological catastrophe in a succession of perceived ecological catastrophes. Just five years before the Dust Bowl, in the winter and spring of 1927, the Mississippi River experienced its most devastating floods in history. Seven hundred thousand people were turned out of their homes, 500 people died, and 27,000 square miles were flooded at peak high water. 

Many things can be said about the 1927 floods, and it is no surprise around this blog by this time that Herbert Hoover involved himself in an ultimately unhelpful way. I see through the power of Google search that the Flood is still an important subject in state history classes in Mississippi, not surprisingly since it imparts an important life lesson --when the river crests, run away! As we have seen --also this month!-- the Mississippi has an unusually wide and productive flood plain, built on a fertile alluvium of millennia of silt and gravel downwashed from the table lands surrounding it. As the state history curriculum reminds us, one of the issues in the 1927 evacuation was that landlords weren't keen on letting their sharecroppers flee the floods in the first place, on the not unreasonable assumption that they wouldn't go back to the delta land!

There is, however, a danger in learning from contemporary sources. Sometimes, we are presented with stylised facts. Upstream from the delta bottom, the Tennessee Valley represents one of the larger Mississippi catchments. Heavy rains across the upper Midwest made the Tennessee Valley an important source of the floodwaters that destroyed so many lives downstream. 

In 1927, it was understood that the Tennessee was suffering its own agricultural apocalypse, having been reduced to "desert" by longstanding cotton monoculture. Liebig's discovery of the role of nitrogen in agriculture had focussed attention on the nitrogen balance, and certainly cotton monoculture stripped the soil of nitrogen. However, it was observed, a crop of cotton took less phosphate and potassium out of the soil than alfalfa. The real problem, the agricultural reformers announced, was poor cultivation practices that leached these precious nutrients out of the soil and let them wash away downstream.  

Erosion, that is. Southern agriculture was sick; Southern society, literature announced, was also sick. Even floods were worse, because of all the runoff. 

The question is, is any of this true? Southern hillbillies might have been racist; their racial anxieties may be rooted in their real history as a mixed race community undergoing ethnogenesis as "White." All of that is as may be. Were they bad farmers?

It turns out that the human role in the Dust Bowl remains somewhat controversial. Droughts have happened before and since without producing dust bowl conditions, which directs attention at human interventions, but erosion events have also occurred in periods without substantial human intervention. The amount of bare soil available for the wind to act on is key here, but it is not clear that this was caused by normal farming practices. In other words, it wasn't overcultivation that caused the Dust Bowl, but rather noncultivation. Which might be why the Okies who managed to make it to California's Central Valley created the world's leading agribusiness region, and not a new "Dust Bowl." (Though, we shall see what we shall see as climate change marches on.)

Now: About the soil catastrophe in the Tennessee Valley. If it isn't a simple "fertiliser" problem, what, exactly, is going on here? At the risk of going the full Tolkien, let's look at the classic British "high farming" regimen of 1875. 

Year 1 (5, 9), Fall
Summer, Year 2
Fall, Year 2
Winter, Year 4
Summer, Year 4
Crop Removed/Harvested
Clover ploughed up
Wheat harvested
Catch crop, if any
Clover and barley
Barley harvested
Crop Planted
“Catch crop,” ie. rye, vetches, winter oats, buckwheat, etc. on light soils only
Root crop

Clover left in ground

If alfalfa really does take off more potassium and phosphorus than cotton (and presumably wheat), why wasn't the late Ninteenth Century British countryside reduced to "desert," too? Duh. While English production in 1878 was about 180 million pounds of grain and legumes per year (calculated on a 60lb/bushel basis from 3 million bushels), the country supported 2 3.5 million pigs, 33 million sheep, and 11 million cattle. Instead of removing the clover and roots, farmers fed their livestock with it, retaining the nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium --or, most of it. Some of it went to market as milk, wool and meat, of course, but by far the greater part of the non-carbon content of that sellable product was nitrogen, which could be replenished. 

It thus comes as no surprise that 30 million acres in the United Kingdom under pasture in 1905 (a figure that probably includes southern Ireland, and is from thirty years later than my data in the previous passage, which is what you get for relying on an ancient Britannica), compared with 3.5 million acres under grain. Those 30 million acres in grass are the catchment for all of the phosphorus and potassium needed for 3.5 million acres of grain. From another source (see below) I get a global total of a million hectares (2.3 million acres) in fodder crops, included in the 30 million acres in grazing by the Britannica's sources.

Now for my nod to "hard" Brexit --or, alternatively, a possible post-oil economy. Having very briefly reviewed British agriculture in 1875, let's have a more  modern look. 

British arable land and crops, 1984
Hectares (000)
Sugar beet
77 (1989)
146 (2011)

I've misplaced the MinAg site where I found this data, but no worries, since on replicating the search, I found this fine Paul Brassley article, reproduced from Agricultural History Review and put up as a pdf.  The thesis of the article, which is a first attempt to compare and reconcile pre-and post-WWII statistics, is that British agricultural production grew more rapidly between 1945 and 1964 than at any point before or since, mainly due to more effort and investment, rather than due to technological progress. This is a striking enough point for me to summarise it here before moving on to the data I was looking for, which is an inventory of grazing land in 1985:

Fodder Crops
Temporary Grass
Permanent Grass
Rough Grazing
5019 (Oops?)

Wheat and grain production is up hugely in the Britain of 1985, with a yield of over 12 million bushels of wheat and 9.7 million bushels of barley. The real loser is British clover, and, were it wanted to go back to before nitrogen fixation (although high farming did involve some imported nitrogen inputs), British agriculture would have to give up 25% of this yield, or 5.4 million bushels in 1985. 

 Other people have done this exercise much better than I have here. The point, to the extent that this isn't just a digression and a tip of the hat to Brexit anxieties, is to understand what, if anything, went wrong in American agriculture to provoke a pervasive feeling --in 1948-- that agriculture was failing, or about to fail, and that soil degradation and desertification threatened imminent economic collapse. 

The British example makes a very strong case that there is no reason to expect the amount of arable land to decline due to soil degradation.

Meanwhile, a look at the resources available to theorists in 1948 shows a certain handwaviness. This comes from the FAO's inaugural 1948 report on "the state of food." It is quaint in some ways, high on the possibilities of the Groundnut Scheme and noting that Africa and Latin America's problems are ones of underpopulation, which seems reasonable, at least for 1948. On the other hand, the pie chart above is directly lifted from the report. The paper cited here is actually a dinner address to the professional society of American geographers, which doesn't exactly fill me with confidence, but a lttile bit of searching around turned up a parallel exercise from 1949. According to Raleigh Barlowe --or, actually, "Pearson and Harper"-- 

"Only 43% of the total land area receives adequate rainfall for crop use, that only 34% receives both  an adequate and a reliable supply of rainfall, that only 32 per cent of this has in addition a suitable temperature, and that only 21% enjoys suitable topography for crop use along with favorable rainfall and temperature  . . . [given] only 46% of the earth's soil can be classified as "good," it is concluded that only 7 per cent of the world's land area is adapted to agricultural production." Baker's 10% is mentioned as "more optimistic."  This doesn't really capture Barlowe's survey of the literature, which includes an eccentric German geographer who was convinced that the world could feed 13.5 billion people, back in 1924, and another who thinks that if all of the "red soils" of the tropics were put into use, some 21% of the Earth's surface could be under arable. 

Without diving any further into the statistics, the obvious conclusion from seventy years out is that  geographers produced these numbers by getting drunk and pulling them out of their asses over rubber chicken. The argument starts with the crisis that is wanted, and moves back from there to the agricultural "statistics" necessary to support the case. Probably not that surprising given that the global overpopulation/ecological/ catastrophe supposedly pending at 2 billion people in 1948 is still pending in 2018 at 7.5 billion. 

Bad workers! Bad! The fact that American farmers, and specifically, "Okies" and "hillbillies" are the villains in this narrative just underlines the complexities of American racism. 

Another view is possible, which is that the cotton lands of the Tennessee bottom would be doing fine in 1925 if there were just enough manure coming down on them from the hill country. At this point,it is possible to see the real problem. The hillbillies were farming, instead of running pigs and sheep, the inbred fuckers. 

As for the Dust Bowl, I dunno. Though, if they're being paid to plough (which they were, under rural relief), and either can't afford, or can't see the point, of planting, you can see why there'd be all that bare soil available for the winds to pick up. 

So that's it. I do end up going full Tolkien. Guys: Trust the farmers. They don't need you to tell them what to do. On the evidence, though, they do need price supports. 

1 comment:

  1. Farmers have no political power. (Productivity thereabouts of triples since 1950. Real-dollar income flat or declining. That's practically the definition of "no political power".) Pretty much everything else follows from that, at least in terms of agricultural policy.