Why should we care about Farmers of Forty Centuries?

Review on Farmers of Forty Centuries  (Extra credit assignment)

Farmers in China, Korea and Japan grow crops quite differently from those in America. In this book, the author, Professor King has travelled a long way to China and Japan to explore the traditional farming techniques. One of the main issues faced by North American farmers in that period is to maintain fertility in their land, while farmers in the east has already resolved this problem for centuries. For many of us, farming is a very distant career that we are not going to experience in the rest our lives, but every piece of urban intelligence in farming is actually worth noticing, as that is what brings our food on to our plates.

In the chapter “Tramps Afield”, the author, Professor King, mentioned that Chinese farmers in Chekiang Province exchanges soil between mulberry orchards and rice field periodically because they benefit from each other, even though exchanging the soil through the fields requires a lot of work. Moreover, the traditional farming intelligence is shown through producing fertilizers by just fermenting a stack of green nitrogenous organic mater with fine soil. Indeed, this practice is really prehistoric and labor intensive, but it works for them to maintain their high productive power. As Professor King noted, “These practises are so extensive in China and so fundamental in the part they play in the maintenance of high productive power in their soils that we made special effort to follow them through different phases.” This is how important a seemingly naive urban knowledge is to a professor.

In oriental countries, waste is also utilized in farming extensively. The conservation of human waste in China, Korea and Japan is profound, when compared to the use of mineral fertilizers here in America. In 1901, more than 20 million of human manure is saved in Japan to be used as fertilizers, while a similar amount of human waste is being poured into the waters of the United States and Europe. This huge amount of waste did show the “greatness” of human civilization and population, but it also shows how human waste can be recycled and utilized, thus saving cost in farming and also reducing the money we pay for. These farmers with limited scientific knowledge have accomplished something more superior than years of research in the western world. Urban knowledge of this kind is a product of real life experiences and observations. For us, it is a gift from the past and we should not ignore it.

Going back to the present, techniques in farming have certainly been refined. The yield of farming throughout the world has been dramatically improved by technology and machinery. On the other hand, organic farming is also becoming a popular alternative to traditional farming, which emphasizes the naturalness and the use of traditional methods in farming. Nevertheless, we should also be aware of its pros and cons. How do the government or supermarkets define organic farming? Also, do the benefits from consuming organic food really compensate for the cost of paying a higher price and using more resources (land and natural fertilizers), or is it just a way to sell vegetables at a higher price? It is the farmers’ or the corporates’ responsibilities to provide sufficient information regarding the farming process, and it is our duty to question ourselves the need of these alternatives and how do they do affect our environment.


One response to “Why should we care about Farmers of Forty Centuries?

  1. nice writeup and connections, Ryan. Did you hear the report on organic farming in China on NPR, w/Michael Pollan & Mark Bittman, this week? http://www.theworld.org/2011/11/organic-farming-china/ It’s interesting, because “organic” seems to refer to corrections to an industrial food system that parallels the one in the US–which is the main one that the reporter is familiar with. None of the participants seems aware of other organic/farming methods that pre-date this, or may deviate from this “standard.” Of course, the Cultural Revolution and recent moves to globalize w/in the planned economy may also have rendered some things opaque…but I think there is a field wide open for exploring just the sorts of methods & contributions that you bring up…

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