Sunday, February 20, 2011

Book report: Ivan Ovsinsky, "A new system of agriculture"

Овсинский И.Е. "Новая система земледелия" (Киев, 1899)

Ivan Ovsinsky "A new system of agriculture"

A careful consideration of the tilling and fertilization recipes leaves one amazed as to how illogical and expensive they are. Happily, a significant proportion of farmers is ignorant of Liebich's theory and continues farming the land in the same way their forefathers did. Otherwise only the lucky few able to afford hitching 3 pairs of oxen to a German plow and to sprinkle their fields with powders (fertilizer) would continue farming.
Ovsinsky was an early proponent of no-till, no-fertilizer agriculture. His fields in the south of Ukraine amazed visitors with rye 10 feet high and wheat green and fresh in the middle of droughts, to say nothing of his yields (stable 4-5t/ha, double the average of that time). In this short book, he presented his system for the general public. His main ideas are as follows.

1. Plants balance expenditures on seeds with expenditures on vegetative growth. To shift this balance towards seeds, the farmer has to apply moderate environmental pressure and force plants to struggle for existence. For grains, where pruning, pitching and suckering are not an option, the prescription is to sow more densely than usual, only avoiding clumping-up of seeds, and to put more space between rows. This makes plants compete and induces them to produce heavier seed to occupy this vacant space.

2. Soil and air together contain massively more nutrients than is removed with the harvest. Healthy soil makes this available to plants naturally. Farmers are only forced to provide plants with easily soluble nutrients by applying artificial fertilizer because deep tilling destroys soil health. Ovsinsky quotes Deherain as saying, at the end of a listing of "horrible" quantities of mineral nutrients present in the soil, "This brings us to the untenable conclusion that fertilizers are useless and not necessary."

Healthy soil has a porous top layer and a developed system of hollow channels (created both by the decay of old roots and by action of worms) though which air and water circulate. Plants can also reuse these channels to grow deeper roots than would otherwise be the case. Simultaneously the soil retains its capillary properties. The top layer protects the soil from drying out and heating up. The temperature differential between air and subsoil helps condense moisture and dew, which also contains in itself more nitrogen (as ammonia) than is removed with the harvest. Soil biochemistry uses abundant air and moisture to break down organic remains and oxidize ammonia to nitrate in the topsoil and mobilize phosphate and other minerals from rock particles in the subsoil.

Every part and factor in this complex arrangement works together and is essential for the whole. Deep tilling, originally conceived to bring more nutrients to the surface, upsets all this completely. In particular, irrigation becomes necessary because compacted soil cannot capture and retain moisture properly. Remedies and modifications applied afterwards may restore one or two factors, but the lack of balance means that the results are not robust and uninspiring. Deep tilling has the pernicious property, which seems common to primitive technological solutions to complex problems, that, once begun, more and more of it is required simply to keep up.

Accordingly Ovsinsky forswears deep tilling (i.e. deeper than 2 inches, the thickness of the top layer) although he does not eliminate tilling entirely, using it for weed control. He adjusts topsoil porosity in the spring or even in autumn to make the spring sun heat up soil faster. He knows about "green manure", but apparently does not apply it as systematically as Fukuoka did. Although he mentions that crops suppress the vegetation of weeds once they are mature enough, he does not use clover and mulch for weed control, relying instead on shallow tilling. Neither does he appear to think in terms of sustainable land use — small wonder given that he writes at the turn of the XX century.

Ovsinsky, even if his methods are not always consistent, represents a large step in the right direction. Modern farming is carried out by the 'lucky few', and this has been a great boon for all other sectors of the economy. Ovsinsky shows us that we don't have to lay waste to our soil for it.

Russian text is available online free of charge. 90pp.
HT: Novaya Gazeta

Saturday, February 19, 2011

January link clearance


 How can Ed Glaeser write about 'treating the seller of kidneys with respect' and 'capable of choosing for himself or herself even in difficult circumstances' 150 years after Marx explained all about economic coercion? Would he treat the choice of this girl (scroll to end) with respect, too? It is all very well to value any contract when the valuer has never had to 'enter into an inequitable arrangement out of fear of starvation, or economic ruin', or at least if the inequitableness always stayed small enough. Also check out Eric's comment: The point is that while economics may be in theory non-normative, it often doesn't stay that way in practice.
Two asides:

  1. Relying on charity, including government charity, does not count as an out from economic coercion if the charity is the Dickensian kind, as is very often the case.
  2. In contrast to XVII-XIXc. western Europe and Britain, economic coercion was much less acute in America because of easy availability of land to farm, prairie to ranch and forest to fell. This might have blinded American economists to economic coercion.

 Why astronomers should not get sucked too much into Dark Energy-related projects:

  1. won't advance astrophysics on a broad front, instruments not likely to be useful for much else (experiment vs observatory);
  2. large collaboration culture of fundamental physics experiments will scare away young talent looking to make an original contribution;
  3. negative impact on astronomy's image as "ambassador of physics" because subject too abstract and removed from everyday experience.
Interesting statistics on bibliographical changes in astrophysics papres over 30 years: citations/article x4, authors/article x2, partly because of 'the use of citations as measure of performance'. Note: the dynamic is similar to the degradation of programmer performance measures, only the timescale is much longer.


 How to set up authentication in HttpListener

 Exact requirements for an IAsyncResult implementation — could this be expressed in code?

 Что редактор советского "Огонька" Коротич писал про Америку до и после перестройки

 iPad imagined in 1988, but comes 10 years late (rus)

 Steve Jobs vs Bill Gates — hippie vs serious boy (rus)

 French gentleman's mansion, locked for 100 years, opens as a museum

 Swedish anti-immigration party politician tries hard to avoid saying that Muslim immigrants are more prone to commit crimes

 IQ negatively associated with criminality at individual level (review) and at county level. Association "not confounded by a measure of concentrated disadvantage that captures the effects of race, poverty, and other social disadvantages of the county."

 IQ positively associated with attractiveness (full text), attractiveness measure is binary but appears legit

 GxE in cognitive ability development (!)

 People believe they have more free will and are more in control of their actions than others

 Ruins of Detroit — check out the clueless comments

 Kan's speech at Davos — Japan's society is probably less atomized than any Western one, but listen to him talk about strengthening social bonds.

 This has to be part of the theory of the modern state: a government cutting off communications from fear of public protests produces a strong and public signal that makes protests more likely to occur and to succeed by overcoming protesters' communication problems for them at a stroke.