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

1 comment:

BillShurts said...

I read your report with great interest.
I am now writing a book chapter about Ivan Ovsinsky's work in introducing
the soybean to Ukraine.
May I please ask you:
1. Does he mention the soybean (soya, Glycine max) in the book you just reviewed?
If he does, would you please tells me what he says about soybeans?

2. Have you ever seen a brief biography of Ivan Ovsinsky?
If you have, would please give me a complete citation or bibliographic reference.

Thank you,
Bill Shurtleff
Director Soyinfo Center
Lafayette, Callifornia