F H King

Fall 2009

F. H. King
This portrait of Franklin Hiram King appeared in his 1911 book, Farmers of Forty Centuries (First edition).

By John Koster

A hundred years after his death, monuments to Franklin Hiram King dot the landscapes of farm country all over North America, even in places where his name is unknown or has long been forgotten. King invented the cylindrical silo for the same reason that he wrote the book some say launched the organic agricultural movement, Farmers of Forty Centuries.

King hated waste. Upset at the silage that rotted in the corners of old-fashioned rectangular silos, he pioneered the cylindrical silo with a round base, a design paradigm so influential that Frank Lloyd Wright supposedly borrowed it for the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. King is specifically commemorated by King Hall at the University of Wisconsin’s Madison campus – and by a book that may be coming into its own almost 100 years after it was first published in 1911.

A Call to Save Soils

Farmers of Forty Centuries deals with what King saw as the impending problem of agriculture in the Western world – soil depletion. King was an expert on the chemistry and physics of soil, and he realized during the first decade of the 20th century that some American farmland was playing out after only a few generations of agriculture.

The use of chemical fertilizers, just becoming popular, “cannot be considered indefinitely either in Europe or America. These importations for the time are making tolerable the waste of plant food materials through our modern systems of sewage disposal and other faulty practices; but the Mongolian races have held all such wastes, both urban and rural, and many others which we ignore, sacred to agriculture, applying them to their fields … we are to consider some of the practices of a virile race of some five hundred millions of people [at that time, there were about 400 million Chinese, with about 80 million Japanese and 20 million Koreans] who have an unimpaired inheritance moving with the momentum acquired through four thousand years; a people morally and intellectually strong, mechanically able … who have long loved peace but who can and will fight in self defense if compelled to do so.”

King’s book came out a few years after Jack London wrote an essay called “The Yellow Peril” in which he depicted the nightmare of 400 million sturdy, diligent Chinese led by 80 million fearless Japanese warriors in a survival-of-the-fittest conquest of the decadent West. Less of a Darwinian than Jack London, King was more of a scientist and humanitarian: He saw the real danger to the West not as vengeful Chinese led by savage samurai but as wasteful agricultural techniques. In King’s best book, the Chinese, Japanese and Koreans were not racial adversaries but wise elders in the practice of a kinder, gentler and much less wasteful system of agricultural.

From Normal School to USDA

King had been born on a farm near Whitewater, Wisconsin, in 1848, at a time when the land was still a frontier. His father, Edmund King, hailed from the Green Mountain area of New England, and his mother, Deborah Loomer King, came from a family with roots in Nova Scotia. Franklin Hiram King’s teacher at the Whitewater Normal School, an institution to train country schoolteachers, was Thomas C. Chamberlin, only five years older than King himself, a man who later became “the ranking geologist of America,” a world-class expert on glacial remnants, and president of the University of Wisconsin.

King spent three years as a science teacher in Berlin, Wisconsin, and published his first book, A Scheme for Plant Analysis, in 1876. At Cornell University, where he studied for two years, King examined the stomach contents of 2,000 birds to find out exactly what they ate, while also studying chemistry and physics.

His wife, Carrie H. Baker, whom he married in 1880, was a strong supportive influence. Together they prepared relief maps that were useful in meteorology. In 1888, King was called to the chair of agricultural physics at the University of Wisconsin, where he taught for a number of years and published books on drainage, ventilation of buildings – the cylindrical silo – and the physics of agriculture.

His next full-time position was as chief of the division of soil management with the United States Department of Agriculture from 1901 to 1904, but his beliefs were seen as undermining the theories of Milton White, chief of the USDA Bureau of Soils. White reportedly forced him to resign. King returned to Madison and began to work his notes into a series of books, and in 1909 he took the extended nine-month journey to China, Korea and Japan that led to Farmers of Forty Centuries.

Three Generations Versus Thirty Centuries

“We had left a country which had added eighty-five millions to its population in one hundred years [the United States] and which still has twenty acres for each man, woman, and child to pass through one which has but one and a half acres per capita [Japan] and were going to another whose allotment of acres, good and bad, is less than 2.4 [China],” he wrote. “We had gone from practices by which three generations had exhausted strong virgin fields, and were coming to others still fertile after thirty centuries of cropping.”

King’s book is a welter of facts and statistics so intense that only his good writing skills and respect for human beings of all races saves it from being tedious. Where others saw traditional Asia as a lurid land of Chinese foot binding and Japanese hara-kiri, he saw organic farming that he believed could solve problems most Americans hadn’t anticipated: worn out soil and the rising cost of outside fertilizer.

The Asians King met composted everything that couldn’t be eaten or woven, kept oxen as draft animals rather than as a food or milk source, and used human and animal manure as a precious natural resource.

“One of the most remarkable agricultural practices adopted by any civilized people is the centuries-long and well nigh universal conservation and utilization of all human waste in China, Korea, and Japan, turning it to marvelous account in the maintenance of soil fertility and its production of food. To understand this evolution it must be recognized that mineral fertilizers so extensively employed in modern western agriculture, like the extensive use of mineral coal, had been a physical impossibility to all people alike until within very recent years…when we reflect upon the depleted fertility of our own older farm lands, comparatively few of which have seen a century’s service … profound consideration should be given to the practices the Mongolian race has maintained through many centuries, which permit it to be said of China that one-sixth of an acre of good land is ample for the maintenance of one person, and which are feeding an average of three people per acre of farm land on the three southernmost of the four main islands of Japan.”

King understood that the inappropriate use of raw manure, and human waste in particular, could compromise human health, but he also understood that no Asian would willingly drink water unless it had been boiled and, if possible, flavored with tea leaves. “The drinking of boiled water has been universally adopted in these countries as an individually available, thoroughly efficient and safe guard against that class of deadly disease germs which has been almost impossible to exclude from the drinking water of any densely peopled country.”

Fitting Crops to Soils

Asian farmers also adopted family-edible crops to the terrain rather that catering to what brought top dollar: Wet lands were used for rice, plains areas for wheat, dry ground for millet, and the rocky hills for trees that provided timber and firewood. Fast-growing salad green crops or beans were sometimes planted before or after the staple starch crops were harvested.

In Shantung, otherwise famous for silk, the farmers planted cotton in wheat fields three weeks before the wheat was harvested, and sometimes also planted “Chinese clover” [Medicago denticulate] to be turned under to add natural nitrogen to the soil. “In this system of combined intertillage and multiple cropping the Oriental farmer thus takes advantage of whatever good may result from rotation or succession of crops, whether these be physical, vito-chemical or biological,” King wrote.

Revolving History

History is replete with irony. King’s book was published shortly after his death in 1911, the year the Chinese Revolution swept away the opiated Manchu Dynasty but failed to remedy the cruel landlord-tenant system that became a forcing-bed for Chinese Communism. Threatened by Russia, the Japanese annexed Korea. Soviet Communism and the impending Communist takeover of China led to increased Japanese industrialization and militarism. Impelled by a conflict over the resources of Manchuria, China and Japan went to war. Both nations emulated Western agricultural methods to take men off the land and put them in uniform.

The farming methods King described have largely vanished in Asia but are now being emulated in Western nations, notably England and the United States, where natural farming is becoming increasingly popular as fertilizer becomes increasingly expensive and cropland dwindles in relation to population. A hundred years after his death, Franklin Hiram King’s agronomics have gone from anachronistic to futuristic.

About the author: John Koster was raised on a vegetable and fruit farm in northern New Jersey and is the author of six books, including the forthcoming Custer Survivor.

Shizuko Obo and Minjae Kim assisted on the research for this article.

Editor’s note: USDA regulations do not permit the use of human waste on organic fields, in part because of the potential contamination of waste with industrial chemicals.

Scroll to Top
Sign up to receive our weekly newsletter of happenings at MOFGA.