Monday, November 23, 2015

George Washington, American Pioneer in Composting


A knowing farmer, who, Midas like, can convert
everything he touches into manure,
as the first transmutation towards gold.


For 45 years George Washington was the master of Mount Vernon, and he viewed his occupation as farmer very seriously. Beginning as a tobacco planter like his father and older brother before him, Washington devoted himself to producing bounteous crops of the weed for export to England. He realized early on, however, that this plant was ruinous to the fertility of his soil. Therefore, he soon stopped growing tobacco and took up the cultivation of wheat as his primary money maker, complemented by corn and a variety of lesser crops aimed at sustaining his family and slaves. The quest to improve his yields led Washington to explore a wide range of agricultural experiments, including composting as a means of restoring soil nutrients.

In 1794 Washington sadly noted in his diary that, "Unless some practice prevails, my fields will be growing worse every year, until the crops will not defray the expense of the culture of them." Unfortunately for his successors who attempted to farm Mount Vernon after the death of the great man in 1799, this gloomy prediction was all too true. For Mount Vernon's soils were simply too poor to be a good producer no matter what innovative measures were employed. Thin topsoil overlying a dense, impermeable clay foundation was the main culprit, exacerbated by severe erosion caused by the poor practices of the day.

Washington never gave up the challenge to improve his soils, however, and he undertook numerous experiments to find the best form of fertilizer. He subscribed to John Spurrier's The Practical Farmer, which advocated the wise use of agricultural by-products and adding organic matter to improve the soil. Washington revealed an experiment in composting in his diary on April 14, 1760, when he "Mixed my compost in box" with different types in the various apartments. He planted the same number of seeds in each compartment and systematically recorded the results. After many trials, Washington applied manure, river and creek mud, fish heads, and plaster of paris to his fields with some success.

As evidence of George Washington's devotion to composting, he erected a highly unusual building specifically designed to compost "manure" and to facilitate its "curing" into usable fertilizer. Mount Vernon archaeologists have excavated the site of this building, called the "dung repository" or the "stercorary", to gain more insight into Washington's farming activities and to provide the information necessary to reconstruct this interesting structure.
Washington's typically detailed directions for constructing the repository provide several important clues to building details. In a letter to his farm manager in May 1787 he lectured:

When you go about the repository for the compost ... if the bottom should not be of good clay, put the clay there and ram it well before you pave it, to prevent the liquid manure from sinking, and thereby being lost.

*This was co-written with Dennis Pogue, http://www.cityfarmer.org/washington.html

Monday, November 09, 2015

Less People More Possibilities

No greater threat to this planet than more humans.   Not only has our population more than doubled since, 1990 our collective planetary impact is exponential.  Everyday 220,000 people are born while 45,000 just die from starvation.  

Steven Hawkins estimated if the population continues every 40 years to double by 2600 there will be only standing room here. Just in the United States births increased in 2014 (1 percent) for first time since 2007.  In the next few decades we are expected to reach 9 billion.

Since 2000, humans have cut down more than 2.3 million km2 of primary forest.  Also we have converted one-third of the ice-free and desert-free land surface of the planet to pasture and cropland.  In southeast Asia, almost half of the natural habitat has been converted.

In 2008 Jared Diamond noted that people consume resources like oil and metals, and produce wastes like plastics and greenhouse gases, are about 32 times higher in North America, Western Europe, Japan and Australia than they are in the developing world.  
   

Now we are at 7 billion people on this planet, and that number may grow to around 3 billion within several decades. Presently 5.5 billion people of the developing world are growing in numbers while we in the industrialized countries consume 32 times more than the rest of the world.

How many more people can the world sustain? Our developing countries make an increase in living standards a primary political goal to become industrialized. How can we in the rich countries lessen our material consumption since the poor wish to enjoy the American Dream of a high-consumption lifestyle? As millions of people in the developing world wish enjoy the first-world lifestyle how much carrying capacity can this planet take unless we humans use less? There is not enough pie to go around now to if humans are going to survive here

Just look at China as the leading developing country.  Now it has a two-child policy increasing its per capita consumption rates at home. China is one of the world’s fastest growing economy with 1.3 billion Chinese, or four times the United States population. Yes, our world is already running out of resources rapidly since China is quickly reaching American level consumption rates. 

India as well as China were to reach our US rate, world consumption would triple. Finally, if the whole developing world were suddenly to catch up to the US rate it would be as if the world population ballooned to 72 billion people or world rates would increase elevenfold.

Without some human population or birth controls we as a species may implode. Over 10,000 years ago there were just two of us. 

There is no greater environmental, economic, social, or other need then to insure we do not mass over reproduce.