Popular Science Monthly/Volume 85/October 1914/The Cultivation of Waste Land
|THE CULTIVATION OF WASTE LAND|
By A. D. HALL, M.A., F.R.S.
THE president of a Section of the British Association has two very distinct precedents before him for his address; he can either set about a general review of the whole subject to which his section is devoted or he can give an account of one of his own investigations which he judges to be of wider interest and application than usual. The special circumstances of this meeting in Australia have suggested to me another course. I have tried to find a topic which under one or other of its aspects may be equally interesting both to my colleagues from England and to my audience who are farming here in this great continent. My subject will be the winning of new land for agriculture, the bringing into cultivation of land that has hitherto been left to run to waste because it was regarded as unprofitable to farm. To some extent, of course, this may be regarded as the normal process by which new countries are settled; the bush is cleared and the plough follows, or under other conditions the rough native herbage gives way to pasture under the organized grazing of sheep or cattle. I wish, however, to deal exclusively with what are commonly termed the bad lands, inasmuch as in many parts of the world though recently settled, agriculture is being forced to attack these bad lands because the supply of natural farming land is running short. In a new country farming begins on the naturally fertile soils that only require a minimum of cultivation to yield profitable crops, and the newcomers wander further afield in order to find land which will in the light of their former experience be good. Before long the supply is exhausted, the second-class land is then taken up until the stage is reached of experimentation upon soils that require some special treatment or novel form of agriculture before they can be utilized at all. Perhaps North America affords the clearest illustration: its great agricultural development came with the opening up of the prairies of the Middle West, where the soil rich in the accumulated fertility of past cycles of vegetation was both easy to work and grateful for exploitation. But with the growth of population and the continued demand for land no soils of that class have been available for the last generation or so, and latterly we find the problem has been how to make use of the arid lands, either by irrigation or by dry-farming where the rainfall can still be made adequate for partial cropping, or, further, how to convert the soils that are absolutely poisoned by alkali salts into something capable of growing a crop. You yourselves will supply better than I can the Australian parallels, at any rate we in England read that the wheatbelt is now being extended into districts where the low rainfall had hitherto been thought to preclude any systematic cropping.
Now, the fact that the supply of naturally fertile land is not unlimited reacts in its turn upon the old countries. During the 'eighties and 'nineties of the last century the opening up of such vast wheat areas in America, Argentina, Australia, and the development of the overseas trade reduced prices in Europe to such an extent that in Great Britain, where the full extent of the competition was experienced, the extension of agriculture came to an end despite the continued increase of population. The area of land under cultivation has declined but little despite the growth of the towns, but the process of taking in the waste lands stopped and much of the land already farmed fell back from arable to cheaper pasture. But as soon as production in the newer countries failed to keep pace with the growth of population prices began to rise again, and we are now in the old world endeavoring to make productive the land that has hitherto been of little service except for sport and the roughest of grazing. Even the most densely populated European countries contain great areas of uncultivated land; within fifty miles of London blocks of a thousand acres of waste may be found, and Holland and Belgium, perhaps the most intensively cultivated of all western countries, possess immense districts that are little more than desert. Of the European countries, Germany has taken the lead in endeavoring to bring into use this undeveloped capital; her population is rising rapidly and her fiscal policy has caused her to feel severely the recent increase in the prices of foodstuffs, which she has determined to relieve as far as possible by extending the productivity of her own land. It has been estimated that Germany possesses something approaching to ten million acres of uncultivated land, and a government department has been created to reclaim and colonize this area.
Before dealing with the processes by which the rough places of the earth are to be made straight there is one general question that deserves consideration—Is it more feasible to increase the production of a given country by enlarging the area under cultivation or by improving the methods of the existing cultivators? There is without doubt plenty of room for the latter process even in the most highly farmed countries: in England the average yield of wheat is about 32 bushels per acre—a good farmer expects 40; the average yield of mangolds, a crop more dependent upon cultivation, is as low as 20 tons per acre when twice as much will not be out of the way with good farming. A large proportion of the moderate land in England is kept in the state of poor grass—even as grass its production might be doubled by suitable manuring and careful management, while under the plough its production of cattle-food might easily be trebled or quadrupled. Why, then, trouble about adding to the area of indifferent land when so much of what has already been reclaimed, upon which the first capital outlay of clearing, fencing, roadmaking, etc., has been accomplished, is not doing its duty? We are at once confronted by the human factor in the problem. The existing educational agencies which will have to bring about better farming will only slowly become effective, and however imperfect they still may be in England, they are mainly so because of the lack of response upon the part of the farmers. The present occupiers of the land do obtain in many cases a very inadequate return from it, but they make some sort of a living and they hold it up against others who, though they want land, can not be guaranteed to use it any better. Improved farming means more enterprise, more knowledge, often more capital, and the man who can bring these to the business is far rarer than the man who, given a piece of land even of the poorest quality, will knock a living out of it by sheer hard work and doggedness. While, then, there should be no slackening in our efforts to improve the quality of the management of existing land, there is a case for also using every effort to increase the cultivable area; indeed, it is probable that for some time to come the second process will add most to both the agricultural production and the agricultural population.
Let us now consider what are the factors which determine the fertility of the land that is first brought into cultivation and remains the backbone of farming in the old settled countries. Foremost comes rainfall, and the distribution is almost as important as the amount. Winter rain is more valuable than summer, and though cereal-growing is none the worse and may even obtain better results with a rainless summer, stock-raising and the production of fodder crops are the better for a rainfall that is distributed fairly evenly throughout the year. Rainfall, again, must bear some relation to temperature; some of the best farming in the eastern counties of England is done on an average rainfall of 20 inches; there are great areas in South Africa with the same average rainfall that are little better than desert. In temperate regions we may say that the naturally fertile land requires a rainfall of from 20 to 50 inches per annum, not too much segregated into seasons and some at least falling in the winter.
If the rainfall is excessive or the drainage inadequate to carry it off, the formation of peat is induced, resulting in such uncultivated areas as the bogs of Ireland and the moors of eastern England, Holland and Germany.
Given suitable rainfall and temperature the texture of the soil becomes a factor of importance; if too coarse and sandy, so little of the rainfall is retained that we get all the effects of drought secondarily produced. In itself the open texture of a coarse sandy soil is favorable to plant development; under irrigation, or where the situation is such as to result in permanent water a short distance below the surface, fine crops will be produced on sandy soils that would remain almost barren if they only depended upon the rainfall for their water. In western Europe large areas of heaths and waste land owe their character to the coarse and open texture of the soil. At the opposite extreme we find clays so heavy that their cultivation is unprofitable; such soils, however, will carry grass and are rarely left unoccupied. For example, in the southeast of England there are a few commons, i.e., land which has never been regarded as worth enclosing and bringing into particular ownership, situated on heavy clay land; most of such land is pasture, often of the poorest, or, if at any elevation, has been covered with forest from time immemorial.
One last factor in the soil is of the utmost importance to fertility and that is the presence of lime—of calcium carbonate, to be more accurate—in quantities sufficient to maintain the soil in a neutral condition. Old as is the knowledge that lime is of value to the soil, we are only now beginning to realize, as investigation into the minute organisms of the soil proceeds, how fundamental is the presence of lime to fertility. A survey of the farming of England or western Europe will show that all the naturally rich soils are either definitely calcareous or contain sufficient calcium carbonate to maintain them in a neutral condition even after many centuries of cultivation. Examples are not lacking where the supply of calcium carbonate by human agency has been the factor in bringing and keeping land in cultivation. I have discussed one such case on the Rothamsted estate and several others have come under my notice. The amelioration of non-calcareous soils by treatment with chalk or marl from some adjacent source has been a traditional usage in England and the north of France: Pliny reports it as prevailing in Gaul and Britain in his day, and the farmer of to-day often owes the value of his land to his unknown predecessors who continuously chalked or marled the land. Upon the presence of carbonate of lime depends the type of biological reaction that will go on in the soil, the beneficial bacterial processes that prepare the food for plants only take place in a medium with a neutral reaction. The Rothamsted soils have provided two leading cases. I have shown that the accumulation of fertility in grass-land left to itself and neither grazed nor mown, so that virgin conditions were being re-established, was due to the action of the organism called Azotobacter, which fixes free nitrogen from the atmosphere, and was indirectly determined by the presence of calcium carbonate in the soil, without which the Azotobacter can not function. Examination of typical examples of black soils from all parts of the world, the prairies of North America, the steppes of Russia and the Argentine, New Zealand and Indian soils, showed in all of them the Azotobacter organism and a working proportion of carbonate of lime. Now, as we know, all virgin soils are not rich, and only in a few parts of the world are to be found those wonderful black soils that are often several feet in depth and contain 10 to 20 per cent, of organic matter and 3 to 5 parts per thousand of nitrogen. These soils are all calcareous, they occur in regions of a moderate rainfall inducing grass-steppe or bush conditions, and the annual fall of vegetation provides the organic matter which the Azotobacter requires as a source of energy in order to fix nitrogen. Non-calcareous soils under similar climatic conditions do not accumulate nitrogen and become rich; in the absence of carbonate of lime the nitrogen-fixing organisms are not active, and the soil only receives from the annual fall of vegetation the nitrogen that was originally taken from it. There is but a cyclic movement of nitrogen from the soil to the plant and back again, whereas in the calcareous soils there is also continuous addition of fresh nitrogen derived from the atmosphere, in which process the carbonaceous part of the annual crop supplies the motive power.
The other leading case to be found at Rothamsted is that of certain grassplots which have artificially been brought into an acid condition by the continued application of sulphate of ammonia. In these soils nitrification is suspended, the nitrification organisms have even disappeared, though the herbage still obtains nitrogen because most plants are able to utilize ammoniacal nitrogen as well as nitrates. The interesting feature, however, is that the decaying grass on these acid soils passes into the form of peat, a layer of which is forming upon the surface of the soil, though nothing of the kind is found on adjacent plots where the use of lime or of alkaline manures has prevented the development of acidity. From this we may learn that the development of a surface layer of peat, independent of waterlogging (when another kind of peat forms even under alkaline conditions), is determined by the acidity of the soil, when certain of the bacterial processes of decay are replaced by changes due by micro-fungi which do not carry the breaking-down of organic matter to the destructive stage. This affords us a clue to the origin of many areas of upland peat in the British Isles, where the remains of ancient forest roots and stumps of trees are found on the true soil surface below the layer of peat, but where there is no water-logging to bring about the death of the trees and the formation of peat. We may suppose that when the land-surface became fit for vegetation at the close of the glacial epoch it covered itself with a normal vegetation, chiefly dwarf forest, because of the rainfall and temperature. The soil, however, being without carbonate of lime, would in time become acid with the products of decay of the vegetable matter falling to the ground, and as soon as this acid condition was set up peat would begin to form from the grassy surface vegetation. The process would continue until the acid conditions and the depth of the accumulating layer of peat would kill the trees, the stumps of which would remain sealed up below the peat. I am far from thinking that this explanation is complete, but at least we have facts in sight which could lead one to suppose that a non-calcareous soil originally neutral and carrying a normal vegetation can naturally become acid, alter the character of its vegetation and clothe itself with a layer of peat. The point of economic importance is that these peaty acid soils are of very little value as long as they are acid, though they take on a quite different aspect if they are limed and made neutral.
Of all the soil factors making for fertility I should put lime the first; upon its presence depend both the processes which produce available plant food in quantities adequate for crop-production at a high level and those which naturally regenerate and maintain the resources of the soil; it is, moreover, the factor which is most easily under the control of the agriculturist.
I need say little about those cases in which infertility is due to the presence in the soil of some substance which is actually injurious to plant-growth, because such substances are nearly always due to the physical environment of the soil, to too much or too little water. In water-logged situations we may find in the soil peaty acids, iron salts, sulphides, etc., inhibiting the growth of plants; in arid regions the soil may still be charged with an excess of soluble compounds of the alkalis and alkaline earths, resulting from the decomposition of the rocks that have been broken down to form the soil, but which through the inadequate rainfall have never been washed out. The establishment of normal conditions of growth, irrigation in the one case, drainage in the other, will speedily result in the removal of the deleterious substances. Practically, only bodies that are soluble can get into a plant to injure it, hence such bodies can be removed from the soil by water, provided that the water can find its way through the soil and escape.
Let us now consider the various methods by which land suffering from one or other of the disabilities we have just discussed is nowadays being brought into cultivation. The most important, if we consider the area affected, is the extension of cropping into regions of deficient rainfall by means of what has been termed dry-farming. As far as its immediate methods go, dry-farming consists in nothing more than the application of the principles of husbandry worked out by English farmers in the east and southeast of England, principles first expounded by Jethro Tull, though a complete explanation was not then possible, even if it is now. In the first place, the tilth must be made both deep and fine, thus whatever rain falls will be absorbed and the conditions favoring a deep and full root range will have been established. Next, the soil below the surface, though finely worked, must be compact, because only thus can the water present travel to the roots of the plant. Lastly, a loose layer must be maintained on the surface, which, though dry itself, acts as a screen and a barrier to prevent loss of water from the effective soil below by any other channel than that of the plant. Granted these methods of cultivation, the new feature about "dry-farming," which has been introduced by settlers in the arid districts of Australia and North America, is the use of a year of bare fallow in which to accumulate a supply of water for the next year's or two years' crop. This raises the fundamental question of how much water is necessary for the growth of an ordinary crop. The first investigation that Lawes and Gilbert carried out at Rothamsted dealt with this very point; they grew the usual field crops in pots, protected the surface of the soil from evaporation so that all the loss of water proceeded through the plant, weighed the water that was supplied from time to time, and finally weighed the produce, expressing their results as a ratio between the dry matter produced and the water transpired by the plant. These experiments have been repeated under different climatic conditions by Hellriegel in Heidelberg, by Wollny in Vienna, by King and others in America, Now the two processes in the plant, carbon assimilation and transpiration, are not causally connected, though as both are carried out in the leaf and have some factors in common they are found to show some constancy in their relative magnitudes. Lawes and Gilbert obtained a ratio of about 300 lbs. of water transpired for each pound of dry matter harvested, but the other investigators under more arid conditions found much higher figures, up to 500 and even 700 to 1. Now, a crop yielding 20 bushels of wheat per acre will contain about a ton of dry matter per acre, so that, taking the high ratio of 500 to 1, no more than 500 tons of water per acre or 5 inches of rain will have been consumed in the production of this crop. It is, of course, impossible to ensure that all the rain falling within a year shall be saved for the crop, much must evaporate before it reaches the subsoil where it can be stored, and only when the crop is in full possession of the land can we expect that all the water leaving the soil shall go through the crop. What proportion the waste bears to that which is utilized will depend not only on the degree of cultivation but upon the season at which the fall occurs; summer showers, for example, that do not penetrate more than a few inches below the surface will be dissipated without any useful effect. When the climatic conditions result in precipitation during the winter, the water will be in the main available for crop-production; and it has been found by experience that cereals can be profitably grown with as small a rainfall as 12 inches. The necessary cultural operations consist in producing such a rough surface as will ensure the water getting into the subsoil, hence autumn ploughing is desirable. Where the precipitation is largely in the form of snow, a broken surface also helps both to absorb the thawing snow and to prevent it being swept into the gullies and hollow places by the wind. On some of the Russian steppes it has become customary to leave a long stubble in order to entangle as much snow as possible, but probably a rough ploughing before the snowfall would be even more effective. When the rainfall drops to the region of 12 to 16 inches and occurs during the summer months, then dry-farming methods and the summer fallow become of the first importance. The deep cultivation ensures that the water gets quickly down to the subsoil away from danger of evaporation, and the immediate renewal of a loose surface tilth is essential in order to conserve what has thus been gained.
In connection with this dry-farming there are several matters that still require investigation before we can decide what is the minimum rainfall on which cultivation can be profitable. In the first place, we are only imperfectly informed as to the relation between rainfall and evaporation. At Rothamsted there are three drain-gauges side by side, the soil layers being 20, 40 and 60 inches deep, respectively. The surface is kept rough and free from growth, though hardly in the condition of looseness that could be described as a soil mulch. Yet the evaporation, even under a moist English atmosphere, amounts to one half of the annual rainfall, and the significant thing is that the evaporation is approximately the same from all of the gauges and is independent of the depth of subsoil within which water is stored. Evaporation then would seem to be determined by surface alone, but we are without systematic experiments to show how variations in the surface induced by cultivation will alter the rate of evaporation. A knowledge of the evaporation factor would then inform us of what proportion of the rainfall reaches the subsoil; we then want to know to what extent it can be recovered and how far it may sink beyond the reach of the crop. It is commonly supposed that the subsoil below the actual range of the roots of the crop may still return water by capillarity to the higher levels that are being depleted, the deeper subsoil thus acting as a kind of regulating reservoir absorbing rain in times of excess and returning it when the need arises. But some work of Leather's in India and Alway's on the great plains of North America throw doubt on this view, and would suggest that only the layer traversed by roots, say, down to a depth of 6 feet, can supply water to the crop; the water movements from the deeper layers due to capillarity being too slow to be of much effect in the maintenance of the plant. The evidence on either side is far from being conclusive and more experiment is very desirable.
It would also be valuable to know how far evaporation from the bare soil can be checked by suitable screens or hedges that will break the sweep of the wind across the land. In England hedges have always been looked at from the point of view of shelter from stock; we find them most developed in the grazing districts of the west, while bare open fields prevail in the east and south. Yet the enormous value of a wind-screen to vegetation can be readily observed, and the market-gardeners both in England and the still dryer districts of the south of France make great use of them. Lastly, we must have more knowledge about the relation between transpiration-water and growth: we do not know if the high ratios we have spoken of hold for all plants. Xerophytic plants are supposed to be possessed of protective devices to reduce loss of water: Are they merely effective in preserving the plant from destruction during the fierce insolation and drying it receives? and do they enable a plant to make more growth on a given amount of water? Wheat, for example, puts on its glaucous waxy bloom under dry conditions: Is this really accompanied by a lower rate of transpiration per unit surface of leaf? and is it more than defensive, connoting a better utilization of the water the plant evaporates?
The cultivation of these soils with a minimum rainfall necessitates varieties of plants making a large ratio of dry matter to water transpired and also with a high ratio between the useful and non-useful parts of the plant. Mr. Beaven has shown that the difference in the yields of various barleys under similar conditions in England is due to differences in their migration factors: the same amount of dry matter is produced by all, but some will convert 50 per cent, and others only 45 per cent, into grain. This migration ratio, as may be seen by the relation between corn and straw on the plots at Rothamsted, is greatly affected by season; nevertheless Mr. Beaven's work indicates that under parallel conditions it is a congenital characteristic of the variety and therefore one that can be raised by the efforts of the plant-breeder. The needs of dry-land-farming call for special attention on the part of the breeder to these two ratios of transpiration and migration.
Closely linked up with the problems of dry-land-farming are those which arise in arid climates from the use of irrigation-water on land which is either impregnated with alkaline salts to begin with or develops such a condition after irrigation has been practised for some time. The history of irrigation-farming is full of disappointments due to the rise of salts from the subsoil and the subsequent sterility of the land, but the conditions are fully understood and there is no longer any excuse for the disasters which have overtaken the pioneers of irrigation in almost every country. Sterility may arise from two causes—overmuch water which brings the water-table so close to the surface that the plants' roots may be asphyxiated, or the accumulation by evaporation of the soluble salts in the surface layer until plants refuse to grow. The annual cutting off of the cotton crop in Egypt as the water-table rises with the advance of the Nile flood affords a good example of asphyxiation, but in the neighborhood of irrigation canals we also find many examples of sterility due both to the high water-table and an accompanying rise of salts. The governing principle is that drainage must accompany irrigation. Even if free from salts at the outset the land must accumulate them by the mere evaporation of natural waters, and they will rise to the surface where they exert their worst effect upon vegetation, unless from time to time there is actual washing through the soil and removal of the water charged with salt. Without drainage the greater the quantity of water used the greater the eventual damage to the soil, for thereby the subsoil water-table carrying the salts is lifted nearer to the surface. With a properly designed irrigation system the danger of salting ought not to occur; there are, however, many tracts of land where the supply of water is too limited to justify an expensive scheme of irrigation channels with corresponding drainage ditches at a lower level. Take the case of a single farmer with some water from an artesian well at his disposal, with perhaps little rainfall, with land subject to alkali, and no considerable natural fall for drainage. If he merely grades the land and waters it, sterility rapidly sets in; the only possibility appears to be to take a comparatively limited area and to cut out drainage ditches or tile drains 4 or 5 feet below the surface, even if they have to be led into a merely local hollow that can be abandoned to salt. The bed thus established must then be watered at any cost until there is a flow in the drains, after which the surface is immediately cultivated and the crop sown. There should be no further application of water until the crop covers the land, the use of water must be kept to a minimum, and by the ordinary methods of dry cultivation evaporation must be allowed only through the crop, not merely to save water but to prevent any rise of salt. With a loose surface and wind-breaks to minimize evaporation it has thus proved possible to grow valuable crops even on dangerously alkaline land. Superphosphate and sulphate of ammonia have proved to be useful fertilizers under these conditions; both tend to prevent the reaction of the soil becoming alkaline, and the calcium salts of the superphosphate minimize the injurious effects of the sodium salts that naturally accumulate in the land. On the other hand, nitrate of soda is a dangerous fertilizer. Attempts have been made to reduce the salts in the land by the growth of certain crops which take up a large proportion of mineral matter, but I have not been able to ascertain that much good can be thus effected. Sugar-beet and mangolds do appreciably reduce the salt content, but are hardly valuable enough to pay for such special cultivation and the limited irrigation-water; the best thing appears to be to grow salt-bush on the non-irrigated margin of such areas, if only to prevent the efflorescent salts from blowing on to the cultivated portion.
Let us now turn to the problem of land reclamation as it occurs in northwestern Europe. There are two main types of land that have hitherto been left waste, the peaty and the sandy areas. Of the peaty areas we can distinguish again between the low-lying moors bordering the lower courses of the great rivers; for example, in England near the mouth of the Trent, and the upland peat-bogs of which Ireland furnishes so many examples. They have these features in common—an excess of water, a deficiency of mineral salts, and, particularly in the upland bogs, a strongly acid reaction; but they possess great potential wealth in their richness in nitrogenous organic matter. It is in Germany and Holland that the methods of bringing into cultivation these moors have been most completely worked out; in Germany, for example, it is estimated that there are about five million acres of moorland of which about 10 per cent, are now under cultivation. The reclamation process must begin by drainage, which may be carried out by open ditches, but is most satisfactorily effected by pipes, despite the greater cost. The water-table must be kept some 3 feet below the surface. In districts which afford a market for peat, as, for example, on the Teufelsmoor near Bremen, the reclamation often begins by cutting out the peat, the lower layer of firm peat being won, dried, and sold for fuel. The upper spongy peat can be used for litter, but some part at least must be thrown back. Where the burning peat is thus extracted the excavation is in places pushed further until the underlying sand is reached, and enough of this is dug to spread over the reclaimed area to a depth of 4 or 5 inches and mixed by cultivation with the spongy peat. Even when the peat is not removed, pits are often made in order to sand the land, so great an improvement does it effect in the character of the crops. However, sanding is not possible everywhere, and there are great areas under cultivation where the reclamation begins with drainage, followed by the cultivation of the immediate surface without either sanding or the removal of the burning peat, which indeed are impossible over large areas, but are carried out by the owners of small farms little by little. Special tools are required: certain forms of disc-ploughs and harrows give the best results; heavy tools for large scale cultivation by steam or electricity are furnished with broad roller-like wheels; even the horses must wear broad wooden shoes.
The next stage is the manuring, and it has only been the development of the artificial fertilizer industry during the last half-century that has rendered the cultivation of this type of land possible. On the alluvial moors where the ground water has always been alkaline, the peat is rich in calcium and no treatment with lime and marl is necessary (the English fens afford an example of this type of soil), but on the true peat-bogs (Hochmoor of Germany) the manuring must begin with a good dressing of burnt lime, or, better, of marl or ground chalk. For meadows and pastures two tons per acre of lime, or twice as much of carbonate of lime, should be applied; the amounts may be halved for arable land. This must be followed by about 5 to 8 cwt. per acre of basic slag and an equal amount of kainit, which applications should be renewed in the second year, but then diminished in accord with the cropping. However, some phosphoric acid and potash salts must be continuously supplied, with occasional dressings of lime or chalk on the acid peaty areas. These latter also require in their earlier years nitrogenous manures, for the peat is slow to yield up the nitrogen it contains. The fertilizers should be nitrate of soda or lime, never sulphate of ammonia. The whole success of the reclamation depends on the use of these manures, as the peat in a state of nature is almost devoid of both phosphoric acid and potash; on the acid peats, again, normal growth is only possible after a neutral reaction has been attained by the use of lime or marl. With this manuring it is found to be easy to establish a good meadow herbage in a very short space of time; it is not even necessary to get rid of the surface vegetation of Erica and other heath and bog plants. The manure is put on and the surface is worked continuously with disc-harrows and rollers, but never deeply; a seed-mixture containing chiefly red, white and Alsike clovers, Lotus uliginosus, rye-grass, timothy and cocksfoot, is sown in the spring and soon succeeds in choking the native vegetation.
It is impossible to say what is the cost of the reclamation of moorland in this fashion; the big expense is the drainage and the construction of roads, both of which are entirely determined by local conditions. But of the value of the process when accomplished there can be no doubt. I have seen a case quoted from the Ostfriesische Zeitung, where a piece of moor bought for £75 was reclaimed and sold for £900; and, best test of all, one may see in places like the Teufelsmoor near Bremen, families living in comfort on thirty to forty acres of what was once merely wild moor with no productive value.
Of even greater interest in England is the reclamation of heathland, which has of late years been proceeding apace in Germany. In this category we may include all land which owes its infertility to the coarse grade and low water-retaining power of the particles of which the soil is composed, the soil being at the same time as a rule devoid of carbonate of lime, and covered in consequence with heather and similar calcifuge plants. In England there exist extensive tracts of uncultivated land of this character in close proximity to the considerable populations, but the process of reclaiming such land for agriculture seems to have come to an abrupt conclusion somewhere about 1850, when the developing industries of the country began to offer so much greater returns for capital than agriculture. That land of the kind can be cultivated with success is evident from the mere fact that everywhere prosperous farms may be seen bordering the wastes, possessing soils that are essentially identical with those of the wastes. These were brought under cultivation when labor was cheaper, often without calculation of the cost because the work was done piecemeal at times when the men would otherwise have been idle. Were any strict account to be framed, the reclamation probably did not pay its way for many years, and it has only become possible again because of modern advances in science and machinery. As examples of the type of land, I may instance the Bagshot Sands on which, in north Surrey, in Berkshire and Hampshire, and again in its southern development in the New Forest, lie so many thousands of acres of uncultivated heath. No systematic reclamation has taken place, but everywhere farms have been carved out on this formation often by the industry of squatters, and within reach of London the vast supplies of town manure which used to be available have converted some of it into fertile land. The crystallization of common rights into charters for public playgrounds, its growing appreciation for residential purposes, will now always stand in the way of the utilization of most of the Bagshot Sands for agriculture, but further afield there are many areas of similar character. The Lower Greensand is perhaps equally discounted by its residential value, but on the Tertiaries of Dorset, the Crag and Glacial Sands of Suffolk and Norfolk—the brak, the Bunter Beds of the Midlands, lie many expanses of waste that are convertible into farming land, just as Lincoln Heath and much of the beautifully farmed land of Cheshire have been gained for agriculture within the past century. Equally possible is an attack upon the sandy areas, warrens or links, behind the sand-dunes on many parts of the English and especially the Welsh coasts; not all of them are wanted for golf, and many can be fitted for market-gardening. Of old the only way of dealing with such land was merely to clear it, burn the rubbish, and start upon the ordinary routine of cultivation, but for a long time on such a system the crops will hardly pay their way from year to year, and the permanent deficiencies of the soil in lime and mineral salts remain unrepaired. In Cheshire the enormous value of marl and bones in such a connection was early recognized; it has been the later discovery of the potash salts that renders reclamation a commercial proposition to-day. The method that is now followed is to begin by clearing the land of shrubs, burning off the roughest of the vegetation, and turning over a shallow layer in the summer, leaving the heathery sod to the killing and disintegrating action of sun and frost until the following spring. The manure is then put on—lime or ground chalk or marl as before, basic slag and kainit, and the sod is worked down to a rough seed-bed on which lupins are sown, to be ploughed in when they reach their flowering stage. The growth of the lupins makes the land, they supply humus to bind the sand together and retain moisture, they draw nitrogen from the atmosphere and with the phosphoric acid and potash form a complete manure for succeeding crops. Sometimes a second crop of lupins is ploughed in, but usually the land is put immediately to an ordinary rotation of rye, oats, potatoes and clover. When the heathland is divided among small tenants in an unreclaimed state, cropping often begins without the lupins, the necessary nitrogen being imported by nitrate of soda, but for years the land shows inferior results. Only the tenant can rarely afford to lose the year the lupin crop involves, and so great is the demand for land in Germany that the State finds it preferable to let the tenant reclaim than to reclaim for him, and charge him as rent the cost of the more thorough process. And now as to the finance of the operation: the reclaiming down to the ploughing in of the lupin crop costs from £5 to £6 an acre, the bare heath costs from £5 to £7 an acre, the reclaimed land after a few years' cultivation would sell at £20 to £30 an acre. Meantime the State has probably made a free grant for drainage, looking to get some interest back in increased taxation; the local authority has also made roads for which the increased rating due to a new agricultural community must be the only return. It is a long-sighted policy which will only find its full justification after many years when the loans have all been paid off and the State has gained a well-established addition to its agricultural land and its productive population. In comparing English with German conditions there are certain differences to be taken into account—in the first place the work of reclamation will be dearer in England because of the higher price of labor, then the land will not be so valuable when won because the higher scale of prices for agricultural products enhances the price of land in Germany. Next, I doubt, in view of the great industrial demand for men in England, if we have the men available who will bring to the land the skill and power of drudgery that I saw being put into these German holdings of thirty to forty acres in their earlier years of low productivity. Moreover, in Germany these heaths are generally bordered by forests, in which the small holder gets occupation for part of the year while his wife and children keep the farm going. For this, if for no other reason, afforestation and land reclamation and settlement should go on together. But, despite these drawbacks, I am still of opinion that the reclamation of such heath-lands is a sound commercial venture in England, either for a landowner who is thinking of a future rather than of a present return on his capital, or for the state or other public body, wherever the waste land can be acquired for less than £5 an acre. The capitalized value of its present rental rarely approaches that figure, but the barrenest heath is apt to develop the potentialities of a gold-mine when purchase by the state comes in question. The map of England is so written over in detail with boundaries and rights and prescriptions that the path of the would-be reclaimer, who must work on a large scale if he is to work cheaply, can only be slow and devious. There are other possibilities of winning agricultural land even in England, from the slob land and estuaries, from the clays nowadays too heavy for cultivation; but the problems they present are rather those of engineering than of agricultural science. What I should like in conclusion once more to emphasize is, that the reclamation of heath and peat-land of which I have been speaking—reclamation that in the past could only be imperfectly effected at a great and possibly unremunerative expense of human labor—has now become feasible through the applications of science—the knowledge of the functions of fertilizers, the industrial developments which have given us basic slag and potash salts, the knowledge of the fertility that can be gained by the growth of leguminous plants. From beginning to end the process of reclamation of moor and heath, as we see in progress in northwestern Europe, is stamped as the product of science and investigation.
- ↑ Address of the president to the Agricultural Section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Australia, 1914.