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Out of the Air or a New Era in Fertilizing Methods

Date Published: 
September, 1930
Original Author: 
John C. Plumb
Original Publication: 
AACS Proceedings of the 44th Annual Convention

Mankind is living today in the Air Age. We turn the switch of the radio and out of the air comes reports of the days news from cities miles away. Lives are saved by the S. O. S. sent out from ships in distress. Our mails are being carried day and night over a vast net work of airways and the air has become the highway of travel between all countries and all people. We not only breathe the air for the very existence of life itself but in countless other ways are we dependent upon air in this modern age.

Nothing is more universally distributed over the earth's surface and it is as free to the scientist as it is to plants and animals. Air is composed of the four common elements: carbon, oxygen, hydrogen and nitrogen, but nitrogen is in the greatest abundance. Plants and animals are composed of the same four elements and nitrogen is the plant food required in the largest quantities. As man's dependence for food is almost entirely on plant growth it is of great importance that our supply of nitrogen be increased to take care of the ever increasing population of the world.

It is estimated that the air over every square mile of land contains twenty million tons of nitrogen or thirty thousand tons over every acre. Mother Nature with unusual impartiality has distributed nitrogen to every country in proportion to its area. The problem of the Scientist was how to extract this nitrogen from the air and make it available as a plant food. It was known for ages that lightning fixes or converts some of the nitrogen into a chemical compound which the rain and the snow carries into the ground where the plant roots can absorb it. It was known that clovers and other leguminous crops took some of the nitrogen from the air, but all of these processes are slow and the Scientist struggled for centuries to find the secret of extracting some of this abundant nitrogen from the air so that it could be used for the good of mankind.

It was a German Chemist named "Wohler" who finally in 1838 discovered a process whereby he made the first artificial urea, which was a compound containing a high percentage of nitrogen in an organic form. This event was the first proof to the world that there is no barrier which cannot be broken between the organic and Inorganic Kingdoms. These early processes were too costly to prove valuable as a source of nitrates, so the world depended on the great natural deposits in Chile. Experiments went on, however as Scientists were sure there must be a way which would give to the world cheaper nitrates.

Finally in 1906 another process was discovered—then came the World War and the crying need of nitrates for explosives hastened events and :processes were perfected whereby nitrogen was extracted from the air cheaper than the Chilean product.

Through these discoveries the free nitrogen can now be drawn from the air and "fixed" in a form to serve the soldier or the farmer, and the same factories that once supplied nitrates for explosives now fix nitrogen for food instead of firearms. Little do we realize what a tremendous event in the World's history this discovery was or what far-reaching effect it will have upon future generations.

So "OUT OF THE AIR" we now derive our principle plant food and because of these discoveries of modern science a new era in fertilizing methods has been ushered in.

As the most important plant constituents which plant growth removes from the soil are nitrogen, phosphoric acid and potash, our complete fertilizer today must be made up of a balanced ration of these three dependent upon the nature of the crop grown.

For centuries animal manures have been the principal source of fertility. It is no longer available in quantities sufficient for our needs, and besides the actual food value in one ton of well preserved manure is seldom over thirty pounds, leaving seventeen hundred and seventy pounds of straw and water which makes the cost of manure as a fertilizer excessive.

Most soils contain vast quantities of potential plant foods, but on account of its unavailability, being in a form the plant cannot take up, the soil is therefore infertile. In order to make this plant food available various methods are adopted such as deep plowing and improvement of the physical condition of the soil removing of surplus water by drainage and last the addition of lime, humus or whatever is necessary to improve the soil texture or correct over-acidity.

The new era in fertilizing methods has taught the farmer, the florist, the gardener and the nurseryman or whoever grows crops or plants that he should be governed first by the nature of the soil and secondly by the crop he intends to raise.

The hit or miss system has become out of date. We know what foods plants require and in what proportion and if the soil does not contain them in sufficient quantities they can be supplied in a form that is available for immediate use.

It is no longer necessary to handle tons of useless material to provide a few pounds of plant food. The modern concentrated fertilizers containing only the essential plant foods reduce the cost of handling surplus material, resulting in savings in freight costs and the labor involved in applying them.

This new era in fertilizing methods is of great importance in cemetery maintenance. The Cemetery of today prides itself on luxuriant turf. Grass requires constant mowing. This repeated removal of the leaf growth rapidly reduces the available nitrogen in the soil so that this supply must be replenished during the growing season. Moisture is the first essential and next in importance is nitrogen in a form available for immediate use. The nitrogen from the air is principally in the amid form which makes it especially suitable for quick assimilation by the plant and new growth is thereby accelerated within a few days. By applying a fall application of a complete fertilizer the grass goes into a winter condition with sufficient food stored up to start early growth in Spring.

Turf grasses have no large woody structure to store up food during the year so this food must be supplied in a form readily available. Crops which are annual can be rotated and supplied with additional nitrogen and other fertilizers and humus by the plowing under of green manures, thereby placing the food where it can be assimilated. Grass being a permanent perennial plant must be fed from the top after the original plant food in the soil has been exhausted, and it is because of this that our concentrated water soluble fertilizers have proven so valuable in turf maintenance. The old costly method of top-dressing with rotted manure is not only unsightly but costly, as it resulted in weed growth which had to be removed. The new concentrates contain no weed seeds or waste material. Their application is easy and pleasant, the labor cost is reduced arid the exact amount necessary for each plants requirements can be supplied and all guesswork eliminated.

So literally, "OUT OF THE AIR" has come our most necessary plant food. As the population increased the area of fertility must be expanded. The day is coming when one acre must produce as much as two does now. We must adapt ourselves to these new methods and prepare for even greater discoveries which will improve the fertility of our soils.

From the publication:
AACS - Proceedings of the 44th Annual Convention
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
September 8, 9, 10 and 11, 1930