site logo

Bones Phosphates Guano

I hate to check improvement or chill the glow of Faith; yet I do so

keenly apprehend that many of our people, especially among the Southern

cotton-growers, are squandering money on Commercial Fertilizers, that I

am bound to utter my note of warning, even though it should pass wholly

unheeded. Let me make my position as clear as I can.

I live in a section which has been cultivated for more than two

s, while its proximity to a great city has tempted to crop it

incessantly, exhaustively. Wheat while its original surface soil of six

to twelve inches of vegetable mold (mainly composed of decayed

forest-leaves) remained; then Corn and Oats; at length, Milk, Beef, and

Apples--have exhausted the hill-sides and gentler slopes of Westchester

County, except where they have been kept in heart by judicious culture

and liberal fertilizing; and, even here, that subtle element,

Phosphorus, which enters minutely but necessarily into the composition

of every animal and nearly every vegetable structure has been gradually

drawn away in Grain, in Milk, in Bones, and not restored to the soil by

the application of ordinary manures. I am convinced that a field may be

so manured as to give three tuns of Hay per acre, yet so destitute of

Phosphorus that a sound, healthy animal cannot be grown therefrom. For

two centuries, the tillers of Westchester County knew nothing of

Chemistry or Phosphorus, and allowed the unvalued bones of their animals

to be exported to fatten British meadows, without an effort to retain

them. Hence, it has become absolutely essential that we buy and apply

Phosphates, even though the price be high; for our land can no longer do

without them. Wherever a steer or heifer can occasionally be caught

gnawing or mumbling over an old bone, there Phosphates are

indispensable, no matter at what cost. Better pay $100 per tun for a

dressing of one hundred pounds of Bone per acre than try to do without.

But no lands recently brought into cultivation--no lands where the bones

of the animals fed thereon have been allowed, for unnumbered years past,

to mingle with the soil--can be equally hungry for Phosphates; and I

doubt that any cotton-field in the South will ever return an outlay of

even $50 per tun for any Phosphatic fertilizer whatever. That any

preparation of Bone, or whereof Bone is a principal element, will

increase the succeeding crops, is undoubted; but that it will ever

return its cost and a decent margin of profit, is yet to be demonstrated

to my satisfaction.

No doubt, there are special cases in which the application even of

Peruvian Guano at $90 per tun is advisable. A compost of Muck, Lime,

&c., equally efficient, might be far cheaper; but months would be

required to prepare and perfect it, and meantime the farmer would lose

his crop, or fail to make one. If a tun of Guano, or of some expensive

Phosphate, will give him six or eight acres of Clover where he would

otherwise have little or none, and he needs that Clover to feed the team

wherewith he is breaking up and fitting his farm to grow a good crop

next year, he may wisely make the purchase and application, even though

he may be able to compost for next year's use twice the value of

fertilizers for the precise cost of this. But I am so thorough in my

devotion to "home industry," that I hold him an unskillful farmer who

cannot, nine times in ten, make, mainly from materials to be found on or

near his farm, a pile of compost for $100 that will add more to the

enduring fertility of his farm than anything he can bring from a

distance at a cost of $150.

Understand that this is a general rule, and subject, like all general

rules, to exceptions. Gypsum, I think every farmer should buy; Lime

also, if his soil needs it; Phosphates in some shape, if past ignorance

or folly has allowed that soil to be despoiled of them; Wood Ashes, if

any one can be found so brainless as to sell them; Marl, of course,

where it is found within ten miles; Guano very rarely, and mainly when

something is needed to make a crop before coarser and colder

fertilizers can be brought into a condition of fitness for use; but the

general rule I insist on is this: A good farmer will, in the course of

twenty or thirty years, make at least $10 worth of fertilizers for every

dollar's worth he buys from any dealer, unless it be the sweepings or

other excretions of some not distant city.

I have used Guano frequently, and, though it has generally made its

mark, I never yet felt sure that it returned me a profit over its cost.

Phosphates have done better, especially where applied to Corn in the

hill, either at the time of planting or later; yet my strong impression

is that Flour of Bone, applied broadcast and freely, especially when

Wheat or Oats are sown on a field that is to be laid down to Grass, pays

better and more surely than anything else I order from the City, Gypsum,

and possibly Oyster-Shell Lime, excepted.

My experience can be no safe guide for others, since it is not proved

that the anterior condition and needs of their soils are precisely like

those of mine. I apprehend that Guano has not had a fair trial on my

place--that carelessness in pulverizing or in application has caused it

to "waste its sweetness on the desert air," or that a drouth following

its application has prevented the due development of its virtues. And

still my impression that Guano is the brandy of vegetation, supplying to

plants stimulus rather than nutrition, is so clear and strong that it

may not easily be effaced. It seems to me plainly absurd to send ten

thousand miles for this stimulant, when this or any other great city

annually poisons its own atmosphere and the adjacent waters with

excretions which are of very similar character and value, and which

Science and Capital might combine to utilize at less than half the cost

of like elements in the form of Guano.

My object in this paper is to incite experiment and careful observation.

No farmer should absolutely trust aught but his own senses. A Rhode

Islander once assured me that he applied to four acres of thin, slaty

gravel one hundred pounds per acre of Nitrate of Soda which cost him $4

per hundred, and obtained therefrom four additional tuns of good Hay,

worth $15 per tun: Net profit (after allowing for the cost of making the

Hay), say $30. He might not be so fortunate on a second trial, and there

may not be another four acres of the earth's surface where Nitrate of

Soda would do so well; but, should I ever have a fair opportunity, I

mean to see what a little of that Nitrate will do for me. And I hope

farmers may more and more be induced to conform in practice to the

Apostolic precept, "Prove all things: Hold fast that which is good." No

one's success or failure in a particular instance should be conclusive

with others, because of the infinite diversity of antecedent and

attendant circumstances; but if every thrifty farmer would give to each

of the commercial fertilizers--Lime, Gypsum, Guano, Raw Bone,

Phosphates, Ashes, Salt, Marl, etc.--such a careful trial as he might,

observing closely and recording carefully the results, we should soon

have a mass of facts and results, wherefrom deductions might be drawn of

signal practical value to the present and to future generations.

I firmly believe that great results of signal beneficence are to be

slowly but surely achieved by means of the household convenience known

as the Earth-Closet, and by kindred devices for rendering inoffensive

and utilizing the most powerful fertilizer produced on every farm and in

every household. That is a vulgar squeamishness which leaves it to

poison the atmosphere and offend the senses on the assumption that it is

too noisome to be dealt with or utilized. A true refinement counsels

that it be daily covered, and its odor absorbed or suppressed by earth,

or muck, or ashes, and thus prepared for removal to and incorporation

with the soil. It is far within the truth to estimate our National loss

by the waste of this material at $1 per head, or $40,000,000 in all per

annum: a waste which is steadily diminishing the productive capacity of

our soil. This cannot, must not, be allowed to continue. We must devise

or adopt some mode of securing and applying this powerful fertilizer;

and I defer to that which is already in extensive and daily expanding

use. Let whoever can do better; but meantime let us welcome and diffuse

the Earth Closet.