Soil: The Invaluable Resource That Underscores Urban/Rural Disconnect. Part 1.

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Originally posted:· February 5, 2019

“Agriculture… is the first in utility, and ought to be the first in respect.” Thomas Jefferson

“There are no farms in the cities, but there are no cities without farms.” Tim Ball

This article is not written to aggravate or exacerbate the rural/urban disconnect. Like all issues or divides in society, the best chances for coping or ameliorating them is by putting them in context. This doesn’t pass judgement on the current situation, but it does provide a base for decisions, including doing nothing.

It is not clear who said civilization is a thin veneer, but I know that it is built on a very thin veneer of soil. Figure 1 shows the bedrock exposed and a soil layer of one to three feet.

Figure 1

Before Christmas of December 2017, I received a wonderful 1804 first edition of a book titled, “The Soil and Climate of the United States of America,” by C. F. Volney. The author was a Frenchman who liked what the American Revolution was about and spent three years touring the US to determine its viability. His work parallels and is as perceptive as that of Alexis de Tocqueville ‘s “Democracy in America.” Unlike most commentators today, Volney understood that an adequate agriculture base was essentially for any economy and that depended on the soil and climate potential. Those who drew boundaries to create Canadian provinces understood it. For example, the northern boundary of the Prairie Provinces was set at 60°N because it was determined that agriculture was not possible north of that latitude. Hay River was established as the first capitol of the Northwest Territories because it was the only small region with a sliver of soil that was not permafrost (permanently frozen).

President Trump proves in so many ways why he is not a politician. I use the word politician in the way it has become defined, that is a person who does not listen or care about the people except at election time. The professional politicians and their lackeys the mainstream media confirm this definition by sneeringly calling him a populist. This is a person who listens to and acts on the will of the majority of the people. How outrageous! Luckily it is to Trump’s advantage that the professional politicians and the mainstream media in the cities continue to judge his actions as if they were political. We had another example when he spoke to the American Farm Bureau Federation Convention in Nashville on January 8th 2018.  He knew what denizens of the urban swamp don’t know, that the entire basis and strength of any economy is the ability to feed the citizens. His views, expressed at the Convention were barely heard from any US leader after Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson also said something that most politicians studiously avoid today.

“Whenever there are in any country uncultivated lands and unemployed poor, it is clear that the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate natural right.  The earth is given as a common stock for man to labor and live on.  The small landowners are the most precious part of a state.”

That last comment should become the banner-head for this magazine.

Ironically, Lenin was forced to recognize this reality when in 1924 he introduced the New Economic Policy. Just seven years after the revolution and creation of massive state-owned farms he was forced to allow every peasant to own a small plot of land. When the Soviet Union collapsed these plots were producing over 50 percent of all available foodstuffs.

The ability to produce surplus food produces surplus time and, in that time, you can create any monopoly game economy you want. This is the simple pattern of history and civilizations. A climate change, usually related to increased rainfall allows greater food production. The word civilization comes from the process of forming cities. That is why the first cities appeared in what we call the fertile crescent (Figure 2). The cities became the store houses of agricultural products and began to control the society. Meanwhile, they began to forget that without agriculture they could not exist. They became detached from the problems developing on the land.

Figure 2

The Fertile Crescent was much cooler and wetter 10,000 years ago. It was ideal conditions for crops and animals that are at the centre of western agriculture today. People gradually settled and switched from hunting and gathering to sedentary agriculture. Anthropologists and historians count this as a major advance in human evolution.  This is a legitimate argument from all but a nutritional perspective.

A hunter/gatherer diet had a wide variety of foodstuffs, which when supplemented with small game provided what Dieticians today tell us is the ideal diet. If the food supply was limited for any reason, including bad weather, people simply moved. We gave that up to sit in one place, be at the mercy of the weather, and depend on about five basic foodstuffs. I think the reason for the change was for security of supply. But if you have a surplus supply, you cannot drag it around with you. It requires storage facilities, and they require construction, maintenance, and management – in short, a city. Gradually, the cities grew in size and power but became increasingly detached from the basis of their existence.  They also became detached from the problems created by and threatening that basis.

These include a gradual change in climate, in the case of the Crescent toward increasing aridity, increasing salinity in the soils, and increasing rates of soil erosion. We do not think of the Fertile Crescent as a major agricultural region today and most, especially in the cities, can’t understand why it was so different in the past.

Awareness of that fact underscores the different awareness of the environment and economies of urban and rural people. Ironically, the difference began with the Agricultural Revolution (AR) that preceded and allowed for the Industrial Revolution (IR). Encyclopedia Britannica identified the major factors that triggered the AR including,

  • break up of great estates to create smaller more intensive commitment to the land;
  • Investment in and production of technical improvements including new machinery;
  • Better drainage;
  • Scientific methods of breeding animals;
  • Experimentation with plant breeding and new crops; and
  • Increased productivity and better soil management through crop rotation.

The net result was a dramatic increase in food production, including security of supply. Without this surplus and reliability of supply, the Industrial Revolution could not have occurred. Technology on the farm reduced the job opportunities, whereas it increased demand for workers in the cities. As a result, the British population changed from 80 percent rural and 20 percent urban in 1850 to the exact opposite today. This transition is presently occurring in China more rapidly and on a greater scale. It reached the maximum redistribution in Canada and the US in the 20th century. Approximately 18 percent are identified as rural, but a majority of them support the 2 percent who identify themselves as farmers. Jefferson recognized the importance of the farmers when he said,

“Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bonds. As long, therefore, as they can find employment in this line, I would not convert them into mariners, artisans, or anything else.

Jefferson also said things that introduce the underlying battle for the minds of society that is central to the urban/rural disconnect today. It speaks to the drift away from what creates and sustains a society.

“The pursuits of agriculture [are] the surest road to affluence and best preservative of morals.”

“An industrious farmer occupies a more dignified place in the scale of beings, whether moral or political, than a lazy lounger, valuing himself on his family, too proud to work, and drawing out a miserable existence by eating on that surplus of other men’s labor which is the sacred fund of the helpless poor.” 

We have reached a point in North America where the “industrious farmer” is a victim of his/her own success. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, never in the history of mankind have so few produced so much for so many at so low a price. They are victims because they have lost their voice in society. A few years ago, I was a speaker at a farm conference in Lloydminster with about 1000 in attendance. The concern was acute because a drought gripped the region and prices for farm products were low.  I spoke to them about the historical pattern of droughts and projected the end of the current situation. I was asked what the farm community could do to get the attention of urban dwellers and politicians to their problems.

I said, the first things to understand are that,

  • the population disparity means urban voters outnumber you and therefore get political attention.
  • Approximately 30 years ago most people in a city had come from the rural area or still knew people in the countryside.
  • 30 years ago, most major newspapers had a section on agriculture.
  • Probably 60% of Torontonians were not even born in Canada.
  • Probably a higher percentage of Canadians take holidays overseas rather than in Canada.
  • Prime Minister Mackenzie King said Canada has too much geography and not enough history. He was wrong. Yes, we have lots of both, the problem is few Canadians know very little about either one.
  • A majority of politicians at the Federal and Provincial level are from urban areas.

Then you need to understand that the characteristics that make you different and successful cause you to lose political clout. To be a successful business person or farmer, you must be a risk taker, someone willing to operate independently, to take responsibility for success and cope with failure. These are exactly the opposite characteristics required for party politics. They are why a former President of the Canadian Conservative Party said that when an election is called conservatives circle the wagons and shoot inwards. To get the attention of the urban dwellers and the politicians who court their vote, the farmers have to get together one year and say we are not going to produce anything this year. It won’t happen, but maybe just talking about the idea will identify the problem and lead to action.

Figure 3

When global warming due to human production of CO2 was gaining political momentum, a major report identified soil erosion as a problem of equal magnitude. I disagree because human-caused global warming was never a problem. However, erosion requires attention because there is so little fertile soil in the world. But more of that in future articles. Meanwhile, hydroponics (growing plants without soil Figure 3) has possibilities, though the scale of production to equal what we produce in soil is not feasible. Besides, you can wonder what happens when rural values are lost, and the thin veneer of civilization becomes a thick, insensitive skin.