Healthy agriculture–revolution or just rotation?

We need a farming “revolution.” And this time, I’m not talking about going organic. Or getting rid of pesticides. Or ending the use of genetically modified seeds.

No–this week I’m talking about something much simpler. A healthy and sustainable approach to farming that’s already been around for hundreds of years.

In fact, when I really think about it, maybe it’s not even a revolution. It’s more of a “rotation.”

A crop rotation.

By rotating the crops planted each year in the field, farmers everywhere could help make pesticides and modified seeds obsolete. Farmers wouldn’t need to coat their crops with chemicals. They wouldn’t need to artificially breed seeds to grow bigger, stronger, and “resistant” plants. Crops would grow big naturally. Plus, as you’ll learn in a moment, crop rotation is not only safe, it’s profitable for farmers.

Best of all–this simple, sustainable approach to agriculture has been around for centuries…

In the early 1700s in England, Viscount Charles Townshend learned that crops grow better–with fewer pests and weeds–when rotated in a specific sequence. 

Townshend actually borrowed this technique from the Dutch and Flemish. In England, it became known as “Townshend’s Rotation.” It included four “cultigens”: clover, wheat, other small grains, and turnips. A cultigen is a plant grown for food. Surprisingly, Europeans farmed only 16 cultigens in total from the time of the Romans until the discovery of new plant food sources in the Americas during the 1500s.

By the late 1700s, Townshend’s practice spread to America. But only sophisticated farmers such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson used it. They eagerly employed the latest “scientific” farming methods of the time.

Jefferson, in particular, revolutionized the American palate by cultivating both Native American and old world crops. With his daughter, he developed recipes using new foods in America. He also borrowed some French cooking techniques. Indeed, Jefferson accomplished “mastering the art of French cooking” in America long before the broadcasts of Julia Child on public television. 

But the practice of crop rotation dates back much farther than Townshend, Washington, and Jefferson. Even the ancient Romans knew about crop rotation. However, like many other things, this knowledge was lost during the Dark Ages.

But not all was lost. In the Middle Ages, farmers knew enough to let the land lie fallow, or unplanted. This allowed the land to rest and replenish itself.

In early America, because there was so much land available, the four-crop rotation never really took off. Only sophisticated “scientific” farmers like Washington and Jefferson used it. Jefferson’s four-crop rotation included alfalfa and oats as a “nurse crop.” But his approach didn’t take hold much beyond Monticello.

In those days in America, you could still farm a virgin plot of land. So, if you were a regular farmer, when the soil became exhausted, you just moved on. In fact, the major cash crop of early America–tobacco–notoriously left the soil exhausted.

This pushed colonial planters to move ever westward into western Virginia, Carolina, and what is now Kentucky and Tennessee. This practice helped open the new frontier. Later, in the early 1800s, farmers turned south into the Mississippi Delta and surrounding regions where the new cash crop had become cotton.

From that practice of a single “cash” crop cultivation, came the current state of agriculture in America. Today, the system is set up to maximize profits. Of course, the farmers who grow the crops don’t see these huge profits. The corporations that produce the agricultural chemicals and the genetically modified seeds take the lion’s share of profits without much of the risk. 

Today in the U.S., crop rotation on most large farms includes just corn and soybeans. And, of course, these two crops now receive liberal applications of fertilizers and pesticides.

On the upside, these two crops are highly productive in terms of raw nutritional content.

In ancient China, soy became one of the four “sacred grains.” I researched this sacred grain extensively for my book called Celestial Healing.

Plus, soybeans contain nitrogen-fixing nodules. These nodules help replenish the soil. The legume also contains protein. And it helped feed China’s masses from early in the country’s long history.

Raw soy, however, can be quite toxic due to the presence of anti-trypsin factors. These agents can seriously disrupt digestion. For this reason, the Chinese developed ways to remove or de-active the toxins. That’s how the world came to enjoy such foods as tofu and fermented soy sauce.

Corn, on the other hand, became a hugely successful crop when first acquired by the Spanish from Native Americans during the 1500s. It then quickly spread around the world. However, no one other than the Native Americans actually knew how to cook the corn for optimal nutrition. 

Corn cannot release niacin–one of the B vitamins–unless you prepare and cook the kernels in an alkaline mixture. The traditional way Native Americans grind and prepare tamales, tortillas, etc. does release the niacin.

Communities around the world came to rely on corn as a major food source. But they had not learned to prepare it to release the niacin. So, until after the 1920s, a Kentucky “kernel” didn’t contain many B vitamins. This led populations around the world to develop the scourge of pellagra.

Pellagra is a disease characterized by the four Ds: diarrhea, dermatitis, dementia, and death. In the early 1900s, pellagra reached epidemic proportions in the American South.

It remained a problem until the 1920s, when a U.S. Public Health Service physician named Joseph Goldberger finally realized that pellagra is nothing more than a niacin deficiency.  

It would be good to see farmers in America and elsewhere go back to the four-crop rotation. Undoubtedly, the crops will grow better–with fewer pests and weeds. Plus, new research shows, as we reported in the Daily Dispatch, that the four-crop rotation is neither obsolete nor unprofitable.

Plus, crop rotation–as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington discovered–helps replenish and renew the soil. This–all by itself–reduces the need for fertilizer chemicals.