Farmers of Forty Centuries by F. H. King, Farmers of Forty Centuries review, homesteading, homestead.

When I arrived at Emerson College, in Forest Row, Sussex, England, in 1979, I knew this about gardening: if you buy a young plant from the garden shop and stick it in some decent soil, you can have all the collards you want.  I’d been living in coastal South Carolina, where the soil was black where it wasn’t sandy, and it wasn’t much challenge to make things grow.

This was hardly an adequate background for someone who intended studying bio-dynamic gardening.  My background in multi-culturalism was even slimmer; at Emerson I’d be one of the few Americans in a steaming stew of Europeans, Africans and Latin Americans, most of whom despised the United States.  I quickly learned that I was not to use the word “American” to denote only people from my country.  Everyone from Canada to the tip of South American could claim “American” status.  My tacit assumption that I was uniquely American was just another proof that people from the US were cultural imperialists.

The weather, after South Carolina, was frightful.  The heat was not central; my daughter’s bedroom had none.  The general reaction to our sniveling complaints was “Pull up your socks or get on your bike.” It wasn’t until winter had set in with a vengeance that I learned about something called a duvet, a goose-down comforter that is a sine qua non for life in that damp, frigid climate.

We lived off-campus in an apartment with one of the few phones in town and other students, despite not liking us, were constantly coming by asking to use it.  We quickly learned that a half-hour call to Brazil was way out of our budget what with the English pound at $2.50, and chasing down our debtors just didn’t seem to work.  The shops in Forest Row encouraged you to bring your own bags, and closed at five on the nose.

It was easy in this cold-frame environment to wax cynical about what I was being taught at Emerson.  Sarcasm is the refuge of the culture-shocked, and I felt embattled as well as perplexed.  We’d come to the course because it had a Third World component; it was geared for people who wanted to work with the disadvantaged and oppressed peoples of the earth.  But in the early days at Emerson, it was I who felt oppressed.

Emerson College is an adult learning center devoted to the work of Rudolf Steiner.  His world view, called anthroposophy, stressed the oneness of all life.  Steiner’s agricultural method, biodynamics, relies totally on natural approaches to plant husbandry.  At its nub the philosophy is idealistic and serene.  But I felt less than one with Steiner, and daunted by the booklist we were given.  Rudolf Steiner wrote or conveyed hundreds of essays, with titles that I found unappealing, such as “The Character of Goethe’s Spirit as Shown in the Fairy Story” and “Theosophy and German Culture – Occult Investigation of History, Reincarnation and Senility.” The Germans at Emerson had the edge in being able to read these gems as written.  The rest of us, whether from Canada, Venezuela, Ivory Coast or Norway, were forced to read Steiner in turgid imitation-German English prose.

It was for this reason that among all the books on the list I seized upon Farmers of Forty Centuries , by Dr. F. H. King.  Though antiquated (it was first published in 1911) it was at least written by a good old American of the United States kind.

My current copy of Farmers of Forty Centuries is a modern paperback, its very re-printability a testament to its enduring status in the pantheon of alternative farming literature.  Samuel Fromartz, author of the recently released Organic, Inc, refers to King’s book as “canonical.”

The copy I procured from the Emerson College library (a cramped corner room on the third floor of an old manse) was hardback and first edition, with pages thin yet curiously tough, and black and white photos on glossy paper.  It smelled like a book should.  Though it was long (441 pages) and fact-heavy, I lapped up this chronicle of a man who traveled tirelessly through Japan, Korea and China in 1905, on an agricultural fact-finding mission of his own devising.

Dr. Franklin Hiram King is a figure of minor historical note.  We know him mainly by his writing.  FOFC, his best known opus, was edited and published by his wife after he died, not long after returning from what was then known as “the Orient.”  As put so eloquently by Dr. Liberty Hyde Bailey in the introduction to FOFC, “at the moment when the work was going to the printer, he was called suddenly to the endless journey and his travel here was left incomplete.”  Did some Asian scourge drive King to his grave at the relatively early age of 63?  By his son’s report, he had financed his Asian sojourn by cashing in his life insurance policies.  Did his wife, who lived to be 100, suffer from this sacrifice?  FOFC ends rather abruptly, lamentably without King’s planned “Message of China and Japan to the World.”

Of his character there can be little doubt.  It shines through his clear expository prose.  King was a bean counter (literally) with a passion for statistics.  He once analyzed the contents of 2,000 bird stomachs to understand their eating patterns.  He began his work as a Professor of Agricultural Physics for the University of Wisconsin in 1888 and in 1894 alone contributed the following information to the annual agricultural bulletin:


  • The number of inches of water required for a ton of dry matter in Wisconsin
  • Field experiments on the percolation of water as related to irrigation
  • Cultivation of corn to depth of 3 inches compared with a lesser depth
  • Rate of percolation from long columns of soil
  • Small lateral pressure of silage after settling has ceased
  • Scales used for heavy weighing
  • Destructive effects of winds on sandy soils and light sandy loams, with methods of prevention

As to what an Agricultural Physicist might do, I can only guess.  Perhaps it has something to do with silage, because Dr. King was noted for his improvement to traditional silos in Wisconsin.  The state has so many dairy farms that it could conceivably be nicknamed “The Silo State.”  In the late 1800s King did an extensive study of silo types, discovering that many farmers were using rectangular silos which had the disadvantage of deterioration of silage in the corner air pockets.  Though round silos were not his invention, King designed an innovative cylindrical silo featuring inner and outer layers of wood to prevent moisture seepage.  He produced specs for ideal silo height to deter silage collapse (24 feet).  This became a Wisconsin prototype.  If a farmer wanted a brick, stone or cement silo King had recommendations for how rich the mix of concrete should be to guard against moisture retention.  In short, King was a walking fact book.  He retired from the University in 1902, credited with having successfully pressed the case for an agricultural engineering department for the school.  He then went to work, by invitation, for the USDA.

Fromartz hints darkly that King left the Department of Agriculture in some heat before setting out on his eastern journey.  In fact King fell into a dispute with the head of the USDA Bureau of Soils, Milton Whitney, who insisted on publishing papers in support of the indefinite productivity of all soils.  Remarkably, every soil that Whitney tested bore out his thesis, supporting his assertion that “natural processes” would maintain good soil health.  King was sure that healthy soil was dependent on the interaction of many complex factors, including water retention, aeration and mulch, and would not infinitely produce without careful husbandry.  He dared to question Whitney because he could not stand to let incorrect material go into the record.  In 1904, he resigned his prestigious post in Washington and returned to Wisconsin.  He never lacked for things to do, and spent his time at home publishing and teaching, enjoying recognition among his peers.  King also dabbled in meteorology (since it was connected with the water-holding capacity of soils), school building design, and road construction techniques.  He had a bushy beard and six children.  In 1905 he cashed in his life insurance policies and left by steamer for Japan and points west.

Though a recognized academic expert, King could not have been too snobbish as during his nine months of travel in Japan, Korea and China he survived in cramped circumstances and ate indigenous foods without complaint.  He describes the conditions in each place he visits, but never a word about his personal comfort.

King would now be considered an organo-idealist, possibly a fanatic.  He was deeply concerned that his country was tending towards agricultural disaster, and his purpose in traveling was to provide the remedy: cogent recommendations for soil and societal salvation.  Or, to use his own words from FOFC, “One very appropriate and immensely helpful means for attacking this problem, and which should prove mutually helpful to citizen and state, would be for the higher educational institutions of all nations, instead of exchanging courtesies through their baseball teams, to send select bodies of their best students under competent leadership and by international agreement, both east and west, organizing there from investigating bodies each containing components of the eastern and western civilization and whose purpose it should be to study specifically set problems.”

The book is no breezy travelogue.  One gets only the barest explanations of how King got from point A to point B (sometimes by rickshaw or by canal boat).  We do not know how he met Rev. A. E. Evans of Shunking who informed him of the astonishing practice of selling the top layer of soil from one’s dirt-floored dwelling to a merchant who leached the soil “to recover calcium nitrate, and then pours the leachings through plants ashes containing potassium carbonate, for the purpose of transforming the calcium nitrate into potassium nitrate or saltpeter.”  In his peregrinations, King was to observe that there were profits to be made buying and selling dirt, water, and human waste.

By what network of contacts did King hook up with Rev. R. A. Haden who took him to a family egg hatchery?  King reports that this family maintained thirty large basket incubators, each with a capacity of 1,200 eggs…”after the fourth day in the incubator, all eggs are turned five times in 24 hours.” To assure proper heating without a thermometer, the proprietor of the hatchery removed sample eggs and pressed the large end into his eye socket, where, King asserts, “the skin is sensitive, nearly constant in temperature, but little below blood heat.”

There is no explanation of how King found himself in the remarkable home of “Mrs. Wu” and the “prosperous farmer of the Shantung province” whose heating systems so amazed me that I have never forgotten this particular portion of FOFC.  These dwellings featured one or two large kangs, or masonry ovens, fired with wood.  The kangs, made from bricks of mud and straw from the farmers’ own fields, became sleeping platforms at night, utilizing the accumulated heat of the day’s cooking stored in the porous material sufficient to last the night.  It doesn’t take a stretch of the imagination to realize that this is an example of radiant heat ratcheted down to its most primitive model.  Bucky Fuller would have loved it.  But, as King points out, “the economy of the chimney beds does not end with the warmth conserved.” The bricks would eventually become too porous and produce drafts, and would then be recycled as an ashy fertilizer.

Based on his careful observations of the labor-intensive but undeniably effective practices of Asian farmers, King reached the radical conclusion that human manure was being wasted in his home country.  Most Western, civilized peoples are repulsed at the idea of applying human waste to fields for food cultivation, especially, as described in FOFC, in its rawest and most odiferous form.  Yet King saw that this material not only contributed to soil health, but comprised a saleable commodity.  He even stated baldly, to answer one possible objection, that “flies were more in evidence during the first two days on the steamship, out from Yokahama on our return trip to America, than at any time before on our journey.”  He postulates that when manure is captured in situ (as in the case of Japanese children collecting it from the farm animals in mid-flight) there is little opportunity for flies to breed.

It’s possible that King, who had friends who had preceded him in exploring Eastern agriculture, may have been predisposed to believe that human and other animal wastes were the answer to soil recovery; he condemns the methods in the United States “by which three generations had exhausted strong virgin fields,” and extols the practices of Asian farmers that had preserved soil for thirty to forty centuries in the face of dense population and continued population increase.  He marvels that the Oriental reverence for their ancestors had taken up much of the land in large burial plots, while still leaving room to grow sufficient food in every possible square inch of land not so allotted.  “Everywhere we went in China, about all of the very old and large cities, the proportion of grave land to cultivated fields is very large.  In the vicinity of Canton Christian college, on Honam Island, more than fifty per cent of the land was given over to graves and in many places they were so close that one could step from one to another.  They are on the higher and dryer lands, the cultivated areas occupying ravines and the lower levels to which water may be more easily applied and which are the most productive.”

In case you ever wonder what intensive farming is all about, look no further than Figure 7 of FOFC, depicting a pear orchard and its proud old overseer in Western dress.  Each pear has been covered in an individual paper bag.  For the true meaning of “cooperative” check out Figure 42, three men operating a wooden-chain foot-powered irrigation pump.  What better says “multi-cropping” (and “entrepreneur”) than the straw-hatted man with his yoke of stacking vegetable baskets in Figure 21?

King’s book includes lists of every vegetable for sale in a particular market and its price, maps of the canal systems he encountered, and a prodigious glut of statistics.  King observed, commented upon and in some cases described in great detail not just farming techniques but mattress making from indigenous cotton, sewing circles on the city streets, child discipline (“during five months among these people we saw but two children in a quarrel”), hand-stenciling of cloth, fish farming, tea culture, comparative work for wages between the Oriental nations and the West, crop prices in two or three currencies, and the unquantifiable value of contemplation (see Figure 54, in which a man with a braid of hair reaching to his waist sits comfortably with crossed legs, looking out at the terraced fields around him).

King could not have predicted the cataclysmic alterations in Chinese, Japanese and Korean politics which have undoubtedly wounded the pristine cultures he was privileged to have visited.  He tended to praise these cultures for their agricultural accomplishments and to skip over some of the less attractive aspects of their society.  For example, at one point he briefly mentioned the fact that if a laborer offends his union he may simply disappear.  He did not seem to note any of the societal ills of these ancient nations: he willingly rode in human-powered rickshaws, and did not comment on foot binding.  While admiring the industry of women who worked construction and farming equally with men, he still called for “young men” to save the agricultural world through international exchange programs.  And he had no hesitation in praising child labor wherever he encounters it.  Perhaps he left it to his many missionary contacts to deal with these problems.

King had his own zealotry; he was a one-world man all the way, idealistically believing that his words should and would be taken to heart.  In general, FOFC stands as a work of praise to the industriousness and conservation of the Asian farmers, and of admonition to Americans, including this prescient warning regarding world trade: “It must be recognized that in certain regions, because of peculiar fitness of soil, climate and people, needful products can be produced there better and enough more cheaply than elsewhere to pay the cost of transportation.  If China, Korea and Japan, with parts of India, can and will produce the best and cheapest silks, teas or rice, it must be for the greatest good to seek a mutually helpful exchange, and the erection of impassable tariff barriers is a declaration of war and cannot make for world peace and world progress.”

There is so much to be learned from Farmers of Forty Centuries that as I write this I’m still puzzling over the messages inherent in King’s exhaustive tome.  For one thing, the inevitable question arises: is this kind of husbandry still being carried out in the rural areas of Japan, Korea and China? If not, to what other programs have these industrious people’s energies been turned? Or have they, or will they, with the incursion of Western technology, become slackers like we Americans have become, the kind of people King feared we were turning into—people who would rather spray some chemicals on the growing plant than enrich the soil with excellent nutrients readily available?

Reading Farmers of Forty Centuries for the first time gave me a broader insight into the aspirations of my Emerson classmates, some of whom had come from countries where the rape of their own land by foreign interests was a fait accompli.  Nearly all had come to the college at great personal expense to learn a gentler and more sensitive way of approaching the earth and appreciating its abundance.  Steiner, King, and a few other guides were their shining hope for transformation.  My cynicism, like my culture shock, waned and was replaced by a healthy respect for what I was learning at Emerson.

Farmers of Forty Centuries is now available online in its entirety at However, to access the book in this way will deprive the reader of the fascinating photographs which are referred to in the text and which, in real book form, are satisfyingly placed to correspond directly with King’s text.  Perhaps it was Mrs. King, publishing the work after her husband’s death, who oversaw this phase of the book’s organization.

Dover has reprinted FOFC selling for $14.95.  The photos aren’t as clear as in the original hardback editions, available from a few used book vendors and Amazon.  If you were to homestead on a desert island, Farmers of Forty Centuries is one book you should take with you.

I have always seen the small-scale self-sufficiency movement throughout the world as a significant attempt to do some of the things that F. H. King admired and recommended.  King could not have anticipated, though he alluded to it, the extensive exponential changes in Western technology that was to mushroom (in one case, quite literally) into a brave new world in which reliance on hand labor and natural approaches would be thought passé or impractically primitive.  To stand back from and refuse to fully enjoy the benefits of those changes takes courage and a different drumbeat.


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