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Fire-eating Farmer Of The Confederacy
At Sumter Edmund Ruffin unwittingly pushed toward ruin the region whose agricultural economy he had revived
December 1957 | Volume 9, Issue 1
To while away his time, he took to walking about his estate. He discussed crops with his supervisor, watched the slaves in the fields, examined the half-stunted grain and the patches of barren ground. And what he observed appalled him.
His soil, like that of his neighbors, was played out. All these planters were leading a lil’e based entirely on economic unreality; all were laced with a proposition that, in time, would impoverish them. Yet, whether from ignorance or despair, they maintained a curtain of silence. Watching his neighbors pursue their spendthrift activities, Ru(Hn raged: “Like the inhabitants of a city ravaged by the plague, they thought more of present enjoyment than of providing for lutine wants; and there prevailed generally habits ol idleness and improvidence, of pleasure seeking and of neglect of business.” He found them a sorry lot; they provided him with a mirror of his own earlier life. When he looked into the possibility of selling his estate, he ivas astounded to learn that “there was scarcely a proprietor in my neighborhood … who did not desire to sell his land, and who was prevented only by the impossibility of finding a purchaser. … All wished to sell, none to buy.”
Lacking a visible alternative, Rutlin decided to save his inheritance, although he had not the vaguest notion of how to do it. The first glimmering of what he might do came in 1813 when The Arntor , the agricultural essays of John Taylor of Caroline, appeared in book form.
Hungrily, he plowed through The Arntor to learn Taylor’s secrets. The ideas, he found, were not too difficult to understand. Taylor proclaimed that plowing under vegetable matter before it began to rot would yield an excellent manure for revitaling soil. He urged raising clover for this purpose, a deep plowing system for all crops, and a bar against permitting cattle to gra/e in the fields. If this were all there were to successful farming, Ruffin reasoned, his plantation would soon be profitable.
However, following Taylor’s precepts, lie found that after the first season his land was still unproductive. Nor was the second or the third season any better. “No part of my poor land was more productive than when my labors commenced,” he admitted ruefully. As for Taylor’s methods, he concluded that they had “proved either profitless, entirely useless, or absolutely and in some cases greatly injurious.”
Nevertheless, he felt that he could not give up. There were other agriculturalists who might be of aid. In his search he picked up a copy of Sir Humphrey Davy’s Elements of Agricultural Chemistry . Although Ruffin knew no chemistry, he was taken with one line in the book: “If on washing a sterile soil it is found to contain the salt of iron, or any other acid matter, it may be ameliorated by the application of quick-lime.” Davy einphasi/ed that lime would convert poisonous sulphates into good manure.
There was first the basic problem of how to go about testing soil for chemicals. In spite of his ignorance of even the rudiments of chemistry, Ruffin plunged into the task of educating himself. He devoured book after book in order to build up understanding.
Unfortunately, when Ruffin finally tested his soil lor salts of iron, he found none. If none were present, he brooded, then Davy’s theory was down the drain. Perhaps there was something else in the soil that made his land sterile. If it were not mineral, could it be vegetable?
And from this he finally deduced his own theory. There had to be vegetable acids in the soil that made his land sterile. Neutrali/ing such acidity, lime would convert these poisons into manure and thus build up the soil’s fertility. Alter this was accomplished, John Taylor’s idea of using vegetable manures would bring even greater fertility.
Ruflin set about to make careful scientific experiments to prove his theory. When he found large deposits of fossil-shell marl on his land, his plan crystallized. Marl, abundant in Tidewater Virginia, was chemically a mixture of clay and carbonate of lime.
On a strip of land of two and a half acres, he applied about 400 bushels of marl. For purposes of comparison, he planted this section and an adjoining unmarled section with corn. He repeated this process on similar fields planted with wheat. The marl’s success was quickly demonstrated. The marl-treated cornfield produced a 45 per cent higher yield than its neighbor. The luxuriant growth of wheat on the marled field showed an even more striking difference.
A gigantic undertaking now began to form in Ruffin’s mind. He would broaden his experiment the next year, and if his efforts again proved successful the entire South must be informed of his discovery. There would no longer be any reason for the forced migration of the planter class.
Despite a variety of ailments, he stepped up his pace. He kept detailed records of soil analysis, the use of marl, vegetable manuring, crop developments, and farming costs. At the end of the season, when his expectations were more than fulfilled, he rushed to tell the Prince George Agricultural Society about his work. And when there was no immediate rejoicing he returned to Coggin’s Point to broaden his experiments further.