Gene Logsdon: Can Garden Farming Be Too Successful?


This is just mischievous philosophical musing. Don’t take me too seriously.  On the other hand…

One of my favorite  books is the classic “Farmers of Forty Centuries” by F.H. King, written in 1911. It details the way food was produced in much of Asia for something like four thousand years and still is in many places there. It was, according to King who traveled the area at that time, an amazing kind of small scale agriculture that, without chemical fertilizer or power machinery of any kind was producing more food per acre at the beginning of the 20th century than farming in America then or now. The way the Japanese, Koreans, and Chinese returned all organic wastes, including human manure, to the soil was an absolutely triumphant model of sustainable farming. Some of the production figures from that time, over a century ago, seem almost unbelievable even today, and it all happened without Monsanto Claus if you can imagine that. Author King writes of farms in Japan which were producing food enough for 240 people, 24 donkeys, and 24 pigs per 40 acres, a size of farm that in the United States at that time would be regarded, he says, as too small to support a single family. Some 500,000,000 people (the present population of the U.S. of course is around 300,000,000) were being fed in the Far East upon the products of an area smaller than all the improved farm land of the United States in 1911. These garden farms hardly averaged one to two acres each. With a climate similar to our mid-south to lower corn belt area, these tiny farms sometimes grew three and even four crops per year on the same land. So precious were organic fertilizers that a private contractor paid the city of Shanghai $31,000, gold, for 78,000 tons of human waste which the contractor removed from residences and public places at his own cost— and felt privileged to be able to do so, says King because he was going to resell it to farmers.

To maintain ultra- high production, hundreds of miles of canals were dug to carry water to outlying fields and the water was rationed carefully to the crops. Not only that, but soil that eroded into the canals was regularly removed and put back on the fields. Obviously this all required vast amounts of human and animal labor. There was no unemployment in this kind of society.

And that brings me to the thorny point of my musings. Humans being humans, and the food chain being the food chain, high production meant that the number of people grew apace. Dense populations resulted, leading to social conflict as this situation almost always does. What happened in China was especially catastrophic. Mass depopulation by war and natural disasters occurred at regular intervals. I list here only the worst examples. In the Taiping Rebellion in southern China, some 20 million people were killed, mostly civilians, between 1851 and 1864.  In the Sino-Japanese war of the 1930s, China again lost between 17 million and 22 million civilians plus over three million soldiers killed or wounded. Some of the worst natural disasters in history occurred along the Yellow River where people settled densely to take advantage of the rich alluvial soils. Although “rural” in occupation, these settlements were urban in population density.  In 1887 between 900,000 and 2,000,000 people drowned in a single flood there. Learning nothing evidently, in 193l, a million to 3.5 million more drowned in another flood, deemed by some historians the most tragic event in history. In 1937, 500,000 to 900,000 more drowned when Chiang Kai Shek blew up the dikes on the Yellow River to stop the Japanese army.

But population increases continued because of such a resilient food production system. Finally the eaters outpaced the food supply. When my aunt went to China in the late 1930s as a missionary, she found people pounding rocks to powder for food. The excellent garden farm productivity and the tragic loss of life were not enough to offset the irrepressible population growth.   Eventually China enacted what seems like an extremely drastic law, limiting families to only one child. Are humans that helpless when faced with the urge to procreate?

Maybe a better way would be to encourage expensive, high tech, Monsanto- type farming to Asia. Its inability to match the productive capacity of China’s traditional organic farming might at least discourage irresponsible population growth. Imagine an ad for international agribusiness:  Our goal is to bring down population in line with farm production.