Saturday, April 11, 2009

"An Essay on Calcareous Manures"

Edmund Ruffin is most famous for being a rabid Fire Eater who was accorded the honor of firing the first shot of the Civil War. Standard accounts typically mention that he was also an “agricultural reformer” or similar. I had taken that to mean that he was the agricultural version of a history buff – he dabbled a little on the side.

John Majewski, however, suggests that Ruffin was in fact an accomplished agricultural scientist who was capable of “profound insight”, tested his theories with “carefully conceived experiments”, and produced “a stunning scientific achievement”:
Ruffin had tried a variety of techniques to renovate his fields. Nothing worked until Ruffin read English author Humphry Davy’s Elements of Agricultural Chemistry (1813). Davy’s discussion of soil acidity led Ruffin to a profound insight. A few brief experiments convinced Ruffin that the acidity of southern soils prevented crops from taking in nutrients. An acidic soil, no matter how well fertilized, would almost always produce poor yields. To correct the problem, Ruffin applied marl, a mixture of clay and calcium carbonate. The high calcium content of marl, Ruffin hypothesized, neutralized the natural acidity of southern soils. . . . A series of carefully conceived experiments showed that applications of marl doubled and sometimes even tripled wheat and corn yields. Ruffin publicized his findings in a series of articles and in an 1832 pamphlet entitled An Essay on Calcareous Manures. The work was a stunning scientific achievement that promised to revolutionize southern agriculture.

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