Voices from the past have something to teach us today.

The following are excerpts from a speech given by Geo. A. Abbott of Falls City, Neb. to the Nebraska Dairymen’s Association in 1889. I have visited ranches where wells have gone dry and subsoil is being farmed. Today, much of what Mr. Abbott was sharing is promoted under new headings such as the soil health movement and regenerative agriculture. I think Abbott’s thoughts should make us pause and consider the changes in landscapes that can lead to the rise and fall of nations.

“More than 30 years ago, when the white man made his first appearance upon the rich, billowy prairies of Richardson County he found a soil rich beyond conception in plant food, the result of countless ages of accumulation, a veritable ‘Nature’s Strong Box’ which had only to be unlocked with the plow to yield an abundance of golden harvests. Year after year, without any return to the soil, in the way of fertilizers, our farmers have continued to draw exhausting crops of the cereals from the ground, shipping them to markets. This skimming process, together with the drifting winds of winter, and the washing rains of summer, has been continued, until today, measured by their productive capacity, our hill soils are worth but little more than half as much as they were 30 years ago. And while our farmers may point with pride to their palatial residences, magnificent barns, and respectable bank accounts as evidence of their success, they seem to forget the fact that these things are only the original wealth of the soil, metamorphosed into new shape and substance; that if they should strike a balance, taking into account the impoverished condition of their fields, they are but little better off than they were 30 years ago, when these splendid improvements were held locked in the unmortgaged bosom of the soil.”

“. . . About 15 years ago one of my neighbors, blessed with sufficient foresight to penetrate the future and discern whither we were drifting, began sowing a major portion of his farm to grass and to gradually stock it up. While the hum of the thresher and sheller were heard at the farms of others, who, with long lines of teams, were carting away to a glutted corn and wheat market the cream of their soil, he, with his flocks and herds, was marching along a surer road to fortune. Today, he is proud owner of two fine farms, three-fourths of which are kept constantly in grass, covered with several hundreds of thoroughbred sheep, together with large herds of fine horses, cattle and hogs. Result: He and the mortgage fiend have long since parted company.”

“. . . For a long time, I did what a great many others did and are still doing. I followed the more exhaustive system of grain farming with its resultant concomitant, interest paying; but ‘whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth,’ and in 1883 there came a great flood down the valley on which my farm (which consists chiefly of bottom land) is situated, overflowing and drowning out a large percentage of my crops. I then concluded to put into practice a plan which I had for some time been contemplating, that of starting a horse ranch; so the following fall I sowed 12 acres of timothy and red clover and have added to these acres since, until now all my farm is in grass but about 40 acres; the result is I have more horses than I can ride, have long since made my parting salaams to the mortgage fiend . . .”

“If anyone doubts this let him sow one of his fields to grass and after a few years break it up again, and he will be astonished at the yield of corn or wheat. There is another advantage, in my judgment, to be derived from grassing of lands, in the stating of which I know I am running counter to the generally accepted theory. It is this: the restoration of the underground water supply to our wells and springs. It is a well-established fact that as countries get older and are brought under the dominion of the plow, springs and wells dry up.”

“. . . Mr. F. W. Ingham, the proprietor of our windmill and well factory, and whom I consider the best authority in our county upon the subject of water supply, informs me that there are very few wells of ten years standing in this county but have either gone entirely dry, or show a permanent decrease in water supply, while he has constant calls to sink wells deeper in search of water where the supply was at one time thought to be inexhaustible . . . Again I ask, if a larger percent of the rainfall enters the earth now than did before the sod was broken, and the amount of rainfall has increased as these self-styled learned men tell us, why do we not find more ‘wet weather’ springs and a greater supply in our wells and permanent springs? It devolves upon the wise-acres, who believe in the established theory that the rainfall and rain absorption is increasing, to answer these questions and account for the well-established fact that countries get drier as they get older.”

May we take heed before more wells run dry and farms are lost along with the resources that once sustained them.

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