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  • Writer's pictureAnneliese Abbott

Sir Albert Howard's Version of Agricultural History

Sir Albert Howard
Sir Albert Howard was one of the first people to challenge the progressive narrative of agricultural history

Organic farming has always questioned the progressive narrative of history. It has to. After all, if the progressive narrative is true, then trying to do things more naturally is a step backwards. To question the automatic adoption of every new chemical or technology means inherently questioning the idea of progress itself. It’s this questioning of progress, in fact, that distinguishes organic farming from traditional agriculture.


Sir Albert Howard was one of the first people to tell a progress-questioning organic narrative of agricultural history, which formed an integral part of his books An Agricultural Testament, The Soil and Health, and The War in the Soil. Howard began by describing the ideal agriculture—Nature’s “mixed” farm of a natural forest ecosystem. Soil was never exposed, rainwater was conserved, and fertility was completely recycled. “The forest manures itself,” Howard explained. “It makes its own humus and supplies itself with minerals.”


When humans first intervened in this cycle by clearing land and planting crops for food, they quickly discovered that they had to replenish soil fertility if they wanted to survive. “All the great agricultural systems which have survived have made it their business never to deplete the earth of its fertility without at the same time beginning the process of restoration,” he explained. Taking what might be called a limited pluralistic view, Howard judged each of the world’s cultures, past or present, by how well their agriculture had conformed to Nature’s Law of Return.


Some cultures, like the Incas of Peru and the early Roman empire, practiced good agriculture. The best farmers in the world, however, were the Asian cultures of China, Japan, and Korea. Asian farming practices “have passed the survival test—they are almost as permanent as those of the primeval forest, of the prairie or of the ocean,” Howard wrote. “Mixed crops are the rule….A balance between live stock and crops is always maintained.” Similarly, European agriculture during the Middle Ages had a system “of mixed husbandry” which “was in many essentials excellent.”


But there were plenty of examples of poor agriculture, too. In the early Roman Empire, a “staunch mass of smallholders” formed the “backbone of the nation.” But when the landholders all went off to war to conquer other people and a slavery-based plantation agriculture took over, the land was destroyed, ultimately leading to the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Similarly, modern European and American agriculture was in deep “trouble,” which “began with the discovery of the steam engine and the Industrial Revolution.” Demand for raw materials to feed factories and urban populations led to plantation-style agriculture in the British colonies, which was “conducted without much attention to Nature’s law of return.”


In his description of the plight of modern agriculture, Howard used a declensionist narrative. “These mushroom ideas of agriculture are failing; mother earth deprived of her manurial rights is in revolt; the land is going on strike; the fertility of the soil is declining,” he warned. Since it was science and technology that got modern agriculture into this mess, scientific and technological “solutions” like chemical fertilizers and pesticides only made the problem worse. The only hope, Howard concluded, was “the faithful adaptation of Nature’s great law of return to our farming and gardening.” Otherwise, modern civilization would be buried in the shifting sands of the Dust Bowl, just like the ruins of the Roman empire.

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Jun 28

Thanks for this reflection. I love Howard's Testament. I also wonder about some of his generalizations. Also, I wonder about how much of his Indore method and other examples would be practical without social stratification based on cheap labour. All that aside, Howard's book changed my thinking.

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