Editorial: Back to the Future:

Soil and Crop Management Revisited

When the Ag-Sieve publishing team began production of this issue, Ancient and Traditional Farming Systems, we asked ourselves, "how many years ago is ancient, how old is traditional?" We did not answer that question satisfactorily but did observe that our world agricultural system has changed remarkably during the 20th century alone. Yet, for many agriculturalists, little is new under the sun regarding the fundamental issues of soil and crop management. For example, soil structure retains its key role in productivity, and pest control remains a principal concern of farmers.

Nearly a century ago, soil scientist F.H. King published The Soil, a classic work whose preface is written by Liberty Hyde Bailey, a mastermind of modern horticulture. Professor Bailey's work focused on plants but he supported Dr. King's view of the soil as a primary locomotive for the evolution of living forms, and mediator of solar, atmospheric, and water energy. King believed that soil derives its power to nurture plant growth from its capacity to absorb the sun's energy and transform it into plant-available forms. This belief emerged in print at a time when the theory of photosynthesis was being refined. The theory that plants make their own food by using solar energy for the biosynthesis of their cell components was phenomenal. When photosynthesis was generally accepted as a plausible theory, modern agricultural production began its shift from a soil-centered to a plant-centered approach.

By mid-century, plant breeders were on their way to becoming kingpins of the fledgling Green Revolution. In time the status of soil in some quarters was placed on a moral par with vermiculite as a receptacle for mineral fertilizers. So-called "dirt farmers" became trivial relics. Now as the century turns again, we find ourselves amidst a second Green Revolution, this one running its course for the sake of our global environment, consumers' well-being, and the safety of farmers. Today soil regeneration and health matter as much as plant breeding. Professor King said as much 100 years ago in reminding us that farming involves cultivated plants, domestic animals, as well as great numbers of microscopic individuals, the souls of soil life.

What has our brief tour of 20th century agriculture to do with ancient and traditional farming systems? Only this. To review the past, examine the present, and look to the future is to learn which knowledge to borrow, which to expend, and in which to invest. To discount the lessons of history is to cultivate ignorance, whether the past in question is yesterday or a millennium ago.

One hundred years from now, the food production systems of the 1990s will seem ancient. Will future scientists and writers marvel at our insight about soil and crop management, or at our myopia? We can assure our prior, present, and future generations a valued place in history by honoring the wisdom of those who came before us, and our own common sense, while cherishing our soil, water, and atmospheric resources.