Books: Farmers of Forty Centuries

Books: Farmers of Forty Centuries

“The great movement of cargoes of feeding stuffs and mineral fertilizers to western Europe and to the eastern United States began less than a century ago and has never been possible as a means of maintaining soil fertility in China, Korea, or Japan, nor can it be continued indefinitely in either Europe or America. These importations are for the time making tolerable the waste of plant food materials through our modern system of sewage disposal and other faulty practices; but the Mongolian races have held all such wastes, both urban and rural, and many others which we ignore, sacred to agriculture, applying them to their fields.” – F. H. King, 1911, “Farmers of Forty Centuries”

Farmers of Forty Centuries ; or Permanent Agriculture in China, Korea and Japan.  F. H. King, 1911

F. H. King author of "Farmers of Forty Centuries"
Franklin Hiram King

“Farmers of Forty Centuries” is one of the foundational texts about organic and sustainable agriculture in the United States. The author, F. H. King was a renowned agricultural scientist whose largest impact was inventing a new and less wasteful way to store silage- a method which is still widely used. In this book King travels through east Asia seeking an answer to the question, “how have Asians [or as he calls them “Mongolian races”] maintained soil fertility for 4 millennia of intensive agriculture?”. At the time, American soil in the Great Plains was already greatly depleted, and much of it had only first been cultivated within the last 50 to 100 years. Not only that, these ancient agricultural societies were maintaining massively denser populations- The Chinese had around two acres per person, whereas the United States had forty acres. Even more incredibly, the rural population of the United States in 1900 was 61 people per square mile of improved land, with 30 horses or mules. In Japan, the rural population density in 1907 was 1,922 per square mile, with 122 horses and cattle!

F. H. King, who hated waste, understood what was happening to America’s once-great soil. Before the widespread use of chemical fertilizers, he saw that western farmers must end wasteful practices which deplete soil.

peasant compost fertilizer
Peasants mix earth with compost for use as fertilizer

In Asia he found hardworking and ingenious people who were making use of every foot of land for food, fuel or fiber. In China, Korea, and Japan the farming ethos was to not waste anything which could work as fertilizer, and to make asmuch as possible out of the fields all the time. This relied on several important principles, especially managing the seasonal rains, harvesting the wildlands for organic matter, preserving all human waste for fertilizer, multiple growing seasons, intercropping, and most of all intense human and animal labor.

This book is one of my absolute favorites because I love historical travelogues, and this one is about agriculture! For its age, there are an impressive volume of pictures showing the lives and agriculture practices of Asia’s peasants. I have read that “Farmers of Forty Centuries” does not contain “practical” advice, however the concepts described in the

Japanese rice farming
Traditional water rice farming requires careful water management.

books are imminently useful. While the United States gets much less rainfall at different times and have different seasons, most of the principles are universal. For example, even if the United States doesn’t have China’s rainfall, it is still valuable to save more water on a small scale for agriculture use- and this book very much made me think about the importance of water management. The Chinese have a truly astounding number of canals, and some of them are as much as 4000 years old. King writes that, “A conservative estimate would place the miles of canals and leveed rivers in China, Korea and Japan equal to eight times the number represented in Fig. 52. Fully 200,000 miles in all. Forty canals across the United States from east to west and sixty from north to south would not equal, in number of miles those in these three countries today. Indeed, it is probable that this estimate is not too large for China alone.” This is a remarkable infrastructure network for transporting water and goods in a pre-automobile society.

China canals
Fig. 52, showing 2,700 miles of main canal and over 300 feet of sea wall.

More importantly, it can help a person see that fertility is all around them- anything that is growing inherently has some value as fertilizer, food, fiber,or fuel. Everything has a use. The Chinese scooped the muck out of canals, harvested the weeds in wild areas, and avoiding wasting any livestock excrement.

Beyond that though, this book demonstrates the insanity of sending fertility out the sea in the form of modern hydro-waste systems. Almost none of the fertility that goes into making human foods in the West has gone back into soil. In Japan the contracts for removing “night soil” were extremely lucrative. Throughout the region there were free “rest stops” hosted by farmers who wanted the fertility. While there are disease risk, the Chinese method of mixing compost with Earth for a period of time before incorporating it as soil managed most disease concerns. The astonishing waste of America’s fertility is considered one of the greatest achievements of civilization, but it has come at an enormous cost to soil fertility while polluting the ocean with excessive amounts of nitrates.

wild grass fuel
Wild grasses gathered as fuel.

Overall, “Farmers of Forty Centuries”  by F. H. King is a must read by anyone interested in organic agriculture, history, or travelogues.The book provides a fascinating portrait into the traditional practices of the Asian peasantry which allowed them to support massive populations on a small amount of land per person. It also shows that the West will need a complete paradigm shift in how it views farming, food, and waste in order to move towards a more sustainable future.

You should definitely read this book, and remember, ‘waste’ is only waste if you waste it!

Check out my other book reviews on the Books page.

Also, the Sustainable Agriculture Club at University of Wisconsin, Madison, where King was a professor, is named in his honor. Check out their projects here.




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