Larding the Not-So-Lean Earth

I swear I’m not a Luddite.  I embrace agricultural technology wholeheartedly, provided it works with natural systems and is cost effective.  But somehow I seem to be making a habit of doing things the hard way…

First there was the machete-as-weedwacker.  More recently we’ve been building our greenhouse with nothing more technical than a string and a line level (they built the great cathedrals of Europe with nothing more, right?)  But my shovel as my manure spreader?  I’m going to have to draw the line.

Perhaps I should back up a bit.  The soil test I took this spring gave me high hopes for my fields–the organic matter in my fields is twice the average amount around here and micronutrient levels are all good or excellent.  Still, a responsible farmer doesn’t live off the fat of the land; she replenishes what she takes away to grow her crops.  I planned to manure my fields this fall so that my cover crops would fix the nutrient from the manure in the soil, and hold it for spring.  As Andrew doesn’t have cows–yet–I’m buying in aged manure from a local, organic, grass-based dairy.  I’ve heard some scary reports lately about how Roundup and other junk used on fields can leave traces that come not only through feed into livestock but through those animals into manure, and thereby onto other (unsuspecting) fields.  So I’m choosy about poop.

My plan was to spread the manure this week, then disk the field again and seed it in rye, oats, or clover.  Rain has been throwing my timing off, but after a sunny Saturday and a dry Sunday, I planned a date with the little manure spreader that our landlords have lent us.

Allow me to stop here and say that manure spreaders are way cooler than the name would suggest.  They look like a wagon with paddles (called beaters) where the tailgate ought to be, and the older versions are powered by the turning of the wheels as they drive across a field.  Besides causing the beaters to turn, the wheels also move a conveyer that runs along the bed of the spreader.  The conveyer moves the poop to the back, where the paddles send it sailing onto the field, evenly distributed with absolutely no backbreaking labor.  Beautiful.

Or at least, that’s the idea.  The rains have left my manure pile soaked, and as I trundled across the field for my first pass with the spreader, I was chagrined to discovered that nothing (other than the paddles) was moving.  I tried changing settings, driving faster, driving slower, to no avail. The conveyor would not budge.

I couldn’t leave the manure in the spreader (the moisture would cause the wood of the wagon to rot), so I got my shovel, and began spreading the manure myself.

It did not take long for me to realize that this will not be an effective way to fertilize an acre and a half.


Andrew found the whole thing hilarious, and was kind enough to document my labors for posterity.

As I shoveled, I was reminded of Larding the Lean Earth, a book I read this winter.  The author, a Yale professor of American Studies, traces the rise and fall of the “improvement” movement in nineteenth century agriculture.  In brief, faced with the increasing population of the Eastern US and decreasing quality and quantity of farmland, Americans had two options: steward the resources they had, or look for new ones.  The improvers advocated manuring and liming and land stewardship–the titular “larding” of the earth.  Improver ideology gained support in certain parts of the the country, most notably Lancaster Pennsylvania and pockets of New England.  The rest of the county, however, (especially the deep south) favored the colonial version of slash and burn, perennially picking up and moving West toward virgin soil.

As I read Larding the Lean Earth this winter, I found myself feeling just a wee bit superior toward the plantation owners and pioneers who raped the land and then moved on.  I struggled to understand why manuring, a practice that made so much sense and which yielded such fantastic results, was scorned.

Needless to say, I get it now.  Moving tons of manure by hand is hard, heavy work.  I use a tractor rated as about 45 horsepower.  In the nineteenth century, that kind of force would literally require 45 horses.  No one had that kind of power at their disposal.  Manuring my fields would require days of hot, smelly labor with horses, wagons, and pitchforks.  I believe that the reward is worth the work, of course–enriched soils will yield a larger better quality harvest off a smaller acreage–but in the life of a nineteenth century Improver there definitely were no free lunches.

I, in the twenty-first century, am hoping we have a neighbor with a bigger manure spreader…

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