Welcome to Book of the Week – a weekly feature of an Acres U.S.A. published title offering you a glimpse between the pages! Get the Book of the Week email newsletter delivered directly to your in box! This week’s Book of the Week feature is Ask the Plant, by Charles Walters and Esper K. Chandler.

“If you discuss soil,” says Chandler, “you have to put ‘variable’ on the other side of the equals sign.” During his days at research stations, small 7 x 14-foot plots had a go at forage soil and plant testing. The size of those plots was governed by the availability of space as well as by the requirement for alleyways. The goal was to maintain as many as 120 of these randomized, replicated, and repeated multiple-year studies. The usual procedure was to test soil 6” deep in each replication and plant test each cutting. There might be 21 different treatments in a test with four or five replications. Looking over the plots you could see variations in the way the plants would grow, even though there wasn’t a difference in treatment. Chandler recalled the scene this way. “The superintendent, Dawson Johns, insisted that we sample each individual plot separately. We’d take, say, seven cores throughout that 7 x 14-foot plot. We’d test these representative composites from each plot. So here you had quite a bit of variation in a very small area. On that Louisiana State University North Hill Farm Experiment Station, calculations would be based on replicated variations between plots. Dr. Darrell Russell, soil and plant chemist analyzed each sample. Years later, that valuable data was still wallowing in the bowels of University bureaucracy.”

Healing Wounded Soil

When Chandler returned from combat in Korea in the early 1950s, he encountered more than a cotton allotment. President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration set up a Soil Bank, which seemed to comply with the Committee for Economic Development’s mandate to consolidate farms into big units and close down the type of agriculture that existed during the Depression ’30s and wartime parity ’40s. The erosion left over from ravaged soil invited correction. This meant factual research, aimed at replacing the cotton farmers, turning Kansas wheat plots into mega-fields, and complying with Ezra Taft Benson’s injunction to “quit mollycoddling the farmers.” Conservation programs planted millions of acres of trees across the South, often on eroded hill land, to build back the soil. Many of those forests are still productive today.

The range of work on that postwar station involved crops, pasture, pine tree fertility, dairy, peach production, beef cattle work, poultry broilers and layers, clearing land and forage production of coastal Bermudagrass hay, which was shipped to the main campus. The farm’s diversity goals included silage production, row crops — cotton, corn and milo, as well as grass and legume test crops that seemed to pose questions. There were no bureaucratic limits on what could be researched, and there were no caveats tied to industrial grant money. Chandler was allowed to put in all the test plots he desired, including his own food patch.

Coastal Bermudagrass, developed by Dr. Glenn Burton of Georgia, rated front burner attention because of its potential for closing those soil wounds that wind and water erosion had accounted for. Coastal Bermuda is a prolific grass, one capable of taking hold with deep anchoring roots in places like eroding gullies. The state of the art decrees one treatment regardless of variations spreading across either plots or row acres.

“We would take manure from the dairy and poultry operations and straddle those gullies, usually dumping the manure rather than slinging it to the bottom. With that fertility, the Bermudagrass would grab hold and stop the erosion,” Chandler recalls.

“Variable soil profiles are the norm,” says Chandler, “even under the best of circumstances.” Old red subsoil often canceled out the small amount of organic matter discerned now and then. Very acid soils have little or no nutrition in escrow.

Circa 1950, “we introduced grain sorghum to that parish,” remembers Chandler. Every innovation seems to invite an unsought counterdevelopment. In the case of milo, it was birds. The feast of small grains for creatures that like grain made the station look like something out of an Alfred Hitchcock movie. Propane guns with timers failed to stop the birds. “We used firecrackers spaced on lengths of cotton ropes tied to trees so that fire smoldering up the rope would explode the firecrackers at intervals. Next we had to get retired folks to fend off the winged predators with shotgun pellets interspersed with the firecrackers or the birds, mainly crows, would take everything.”

The soil proposed and the crows disposed because the environment around Homer, Louisiana made it tough on wildlife. There was a time when it was impossible to lose sight of a nearby cotton field in that environment. By the end of the 1940s, King Cotton was not even a poor pretender to royalty — research on cotton, fumigation, and fertility studies notwithstanding. Small farms became social, political and research anathema. “Don’t do research on small plots,” the sotto voce admonition. “Use commercial farms. That’s where the need is.” Chandler and his associates found three commercial farmers still in the cotton business. Today that parish has not one. The soil-mining era having spent itself, the soil would no longer permit it.

Chandler calls his and the grower’s nemesis “bad cultural practices.” These include excess tillage, wasteful fertilizer and water use, bulk soil treatment when spoon-feeding is indicated, and virtually complete ignorance of foliar nutrients and natural adjuvant application.

Looking at Soil Sampling Differently

The paradigm changed the day Esper K. Chandler moved into the Rio Grande Valley because the soils had changed. Gone were the hills and sand, now replaced by a flood plain in an arid subtropical climate. The Rio Grande originates in the mountains of Colorado, meanders through New Mexico, passes El Paso, and then turns toward the Gulf of Mexico. It is one of the historical rivers of the world in terms of the land nearby and the irrigation systems it supplies. Here, as in present-day Egypt, the plains are spared the inconvenience of floods with a dam, canceling out the nutrient fix and salt leaching that every flood accomplished. With irrigation the salts build up. In Egypt cotton, once a famous staple crop, is almost nonexistent because the builders of the Aswan Dam’s irrigation system failed to plan for internal drainage for salt to facilitate leaching.

A soil chemist named Schultz started the laboratory in 1938 that Chandler later made his own. It was the first soil lab in the state of Texas. Schultz developed the four-foot-in-one-foot increment profile. This technique had its faults, the main one being the prevailing concept of the hour. The soil was rich in minerals and equipped with the full pantheon of micronutrients. Everyone believed that all you needed was nitrogen. If you leveled the land, controlled salts, irrigated and used nitrogen, you painted the landscape green. That, points out Chandler, is what we’re still doing seven decades later. “We’re mining our soils, particularly of organic matter and minerals.”

The standard procedure is to take several randomized core samples, then mix the samples to achieve a representative composite. Yet even plot experiments reveal a significant difference within a few feet. Uncommon good sense analysis told Chandler that precision farming was indicated. In time, global positioning systems enabled a precision never envisioned when Chandler was simply observing as a researcher, not a pioneer and visionary.

In Chandler’s view, the methods of the natural/organic folks demanded that conventional agriculture pay attention to claims about organic matter, humus, soil microorganisms, and the conversion of inorganic minerals to soluble organic for root uptake. But it was the recognition of variations between side-by-side trees or row crops that exhibited a difference and invited the farmer to address those differences with the use of plant nutrients. Citrus trees were usually 10 to 24 feet apart. A soil sample on one side of the row often varied greatly from a similar sample on the other side. This prompted the marking of trees so that subsequent samples could validate findings and measure the character of every response where sampling variations did not influence the evaluations. The bottom line information revealed that there were more inherent differences in the soil than in the treatments. The uncomfortable conclusion was that most of the earlier basic research was badly flawed because it was not calibrated to plant uptake.

Some of Chandler’s mentors wanted to remove many of those inherent variations. Immediately, certain appropriate conclusions started closing the gap between organic folklore and so-called settled science. It was a small step to repair the soil with humic acids or soil inoculants, eschewing the NPK code.

“We came to an inescapable conclusion,” Chandler conceded. “We were introducing more variations via our testing procedures than were imposed by the differences we were trying to measure.” Statistics don’t lie, but they don’t digest facts very well either. Peer review somehow failed to square with reality. It was an awesome discovery, this business of methods and materials introducing more variables than were the goal of increased production. Then, as now, “too much of our work was and is theoretical and formula founded, and too much of the practical farm-applied research is funded by people and firms with a product to sell, products that they can protect with a patent or copyright.”

The situation has taken more alarming turns than a Roman taxi. Witness Monsanto and its relentless effort to develop and sell Roundup Ready soybeans, glyphosate, GMO canola, and all the rest. It makes dealing with nature seem less than scientific by comparison. To regenerate the soils that have been mined out, “we have first to understand that it is recoverable. It forgives many of our transgressions, but to recapture the values both research and practical agriculture have to obey nature, not the laboratory approximation thereof,” says Chandler.

About the Authors

Charles Walters was the founder of Acres U.S.A., and completed more than a dozen books as he edited Acres U.S.A., while co-authoring several others. A tireless traveler, Walters journeyed around the world to research sustainable agriculture, and his trip to China in 1976 inspired others to travel to this then-mysterious society. By the time of his death in 2009, Charles Walters could honestly say he changed the world for the better.

Esper K. Chandler was a professional agronomist and soil scientist who traveled the country consulting with growers in a quest to improve yields, quality, and profits. He was the owner of TPS Lab for more than 27 years. K. Chandler was a founding member of the National Organic Standards Board and a Certified Professional Agronomist (CPAg) by the American Society of Agronomy. He has been proclaimed as a leader in the soil fertility and plant nutrition field. Chandler passed away in 2008.

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