Sir Albert Howard CIE
“The most important possession of a country is its population. If this is maintained in health and vigour everything else will follow; if this is allowed to decline nothing, not even great riches, can save the country from eventual ruin.”
The name and works of SIr Albert Howard are well known by those interested in the possibilities of effective plant production, soil fertility, and general maintenance of the land, with the minimal application of chemical products and fertilisers. He was convinced like Albrecht, and from different perspectives McCarrison and Weston Price, that healthy soils meant healthy plants, so livestock and people. He, assisted by his wives, produced a number of well know and respected books as well as other publications. (Wikipedia link)
Howard had a different vision to most mainstream agronomists. He was impressed by the ability of groups such as the Chinese to produce the high yields and healthy crops necessary to maintain large populations on small acreages without significant use of ‘artificials’. He was also acutely aware of the needs of small Indian farmers for practical affordable ways to produce increased yields in ways that were affordable relevant and respected their knowledge, history, culture, and nature of the land they had farmed for generations.
Whilst very much evidence based, his work lead him to believe maintenance of soil quality, including organic and mineral content, was absolutely central to effective growing practices. He believed that good soils, combined with breeding, would produce healthy disease resistant plants, and consequently the question of how to optimise soil quality, rather than the positive and negative issues consequent on chemical intervention, formed the core part of his work.
He was very much feet on the ground evidence based. He came from farming stock, and spent his whole career in plant research. His books are not about the dangers of chemical farming products. He may well have had views about them, including that they were not central to healthy plants, but that was not the focus of his work.
Soil health was his ‘organic’ focus, although in a modern context the word is often used to focus on the ‘evils’ of ‘artificials’, rather than the nutrition of plants, so with organic labels we get pesticide free plants, but ones that are often of poor nutritional quality. For example growers will refuse to use compost from farm animals to improve land, because they may not be organically reared. However absent other sources of minerals including sulphur and iodine, and organic matter, their vegetables maybe marginally more free of pollutants, but they are also likely to be less nutrient including mineral and plant antioxidant dense so; less tasteful, have less texture, rot more quickly in the fridge, and be of limited additional or even lower nutritional benefit than an industrially grown crop. This is not a defence of those that rely solely on ‘artificials’ to maintain yields largely ignoring the importance of soil quality, but just to point out that ‘organic’ focus on ‘artificials’, without regard to soil nutrients, may not help us in nutritional terms.
Keith Addison from Journey to Forever says;
“Sir Albert Howard was the founder of the organic farming movement. He worked for 25 years as an agricultural investigator in India, first as Agricultural Adviser to States in Central India and Rajputana, then as Director of the Institute of Plant Industry at Indore, where he developed the famed Indore composting process, which put the ancient art of composting on a firm scientific basis.
Howard was a brilliant development worker. Early in his career he abandoned the restrictions of conventional agricultural science with its increasing overspecialization — “learning more and more about less and less” — and set out to learn how to grow a healthy crop in typical conditions in the field, rather than the usual untypical conditions in laboratories and test-plots that represented nothing other than themselves.” Continues; available in full here
Howard’s appreciation of the need for minerals in the soil.
Mother Earth The Soil Association’s Journal – Article by Charles Dowding on Sir Albert Howard and Manure
Importance of his composting knowledge and technology
Howard recognised that plants required adequate nutrients including minerals to flourish. His attitude to compost was likely influenced by Chinese agricultural practice as set out by King.
His work with compost and development over many years of optimal techniques to effectively and efficiently produce quality compost with minimal odours, and development temperatures that effectively killed pathogens, is arguably of tremendous importance.
The McCarrison Society wishes to get new research conducted to see how effective his techniques might be in composting modern human waste, removal of hormones etc. as a step to renewing interest in human waste as a renewable source of nitrogen phosphorous minerals and other plant nutrients. We are currently have this listed as a project and are in very early stages of initial contact and discussions as to how this might be done with Rothamstead.
The importance of the mineralisation of soils is often a forgotten leg of the tenants of modern organic farming. Cell enzymes, plant or human, ultimately require minerals to function. A well mineralised non-organic product from deep historically nutrient rich soils may well be more nutritious than organic produce from a poor soil. Ideally crops would be both from mineral rich soils and grown with minimal chemical intervention.
Publications available on line
These publications and others are online and free at the excellent Journey to Forever Small Farms Web site, where they are described in the following terms.
“Introduction to “An Agricultural Testament” (Link)— full text online at Journey to Forever.
The Manufacture of Humus from the Wastes of the Town and the Village (Link) — “An Agricultural Testament”, by Sir Albert Howard, 1940, Oxford University Press, Appendix C, full text online at the Journey to Forever Small Farms Library..
An Agricultural Testament (Link) by Sir Albert Howard, Oxford University Press, 1940.
This is the book that started the organic farming and gardening revolution, the result of Howard’s 25 years of research at Indore in India. The essence of organics is brilliantly encapsulated in the Introduction, which begins: “The maintenance of the fertility of the soil is the first condition of any permanent system of agriculture.” Read on! Full explanation of the Indore composting process and its application. Excellent on the relationship between soil, food and health. Full text online at the Journey to Forever Small Farms Library.
The Waste Products of Agriculture — Their Utilization as Humus (Link) by Albert Howard and Yeshwant D. Wad, Oxford University Press, London, 1931
Where Howard’s An Agricultural Testament charts a new path for sustainable agriculture, this previous book describes how the Indore composting system which was the foundation of the new movement was developed, and why. Howard’s most important scientific publication. Full text online at the Journey to Forever Small Farms Library.
Farming and Gardening for Health or Disease (The Soil and Health) (Link) by Sir Albert Howard, Faber and Faber, London, 1945, Devin-Adair 1947, Schocken 1972
This is Howard’s follow-up to An Agricultural Testament, extending its themes and serving as a guide to the new organic farming movement as it unfolded — and encountered opposition from the chemical farming lobby and the type of agricultural scientists Howard referred to as “laboratory hermits”. Together, the two books provide a clear understanding of what health is and how it works. Full text online at the Journey to Forever Small Farms Library.
Sir Albert Howard in India (Link) by Louise E. Howard, Faber & Faber, London, 1953, Rodale 1954
Albert and Gabrielle Howard worked as fellow plant scientists and fellow Imperial Economic Botanists to the Government of India for 25 years, and this is a study of their work by Sir Albert’s second wife Louise (sister of Gabrielle, who died in 1930). It’s a classic study of effective Third World development work. Initially involved with improving crop varieties, the pair soon concluded it was futile to fiddle with seeds unless the work took full account of the system and circumstances as a whole. Thus developed a sustained interest in putting agricultural research into its right relation with the needs of the people, and a fundamental belief in peasant wisdom. Results were useful only if they could be translated into peasant practice. This led to the development of the famous Indore system of composting organic wastes: improved seeds were no use in impoverished soils. It’s a great story. Full text online at the Journey to Forever Small Farms Library.”