By Louis Bromfield
Summary: In 1939 Pulitzer Prize winner and farsighted agriculturist Louis Bromfield established Malabar Farm, a thousand acre spread in the heart of Ohio that would become a hotbed for sustainable agriculture research as well as a popular getaway for Hollywood celebrities (Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall wed there in 1945, with Bromfield serving as best man). Bromfield would dedicate Malabar to what he considered the biggest challenge facing the country—conservation of the soil and water—pouring the profits of his writing into developing practices considered highly radical at the time, such as controlled grazing, crop rotation, contour plowing, and the use of natural instead of artificial fertilizers. In this 1950 article, Bromfield gives a glimpse of the philosophy behind his “conservation farming,” reflecting an understanding of the connection between soil health, microbial life, and animal and human nutrition that is truly years ahead of its time. “It is the duty of every citizen,” Bromfield urged, “to support and fight for—and possibly initiate—measures having to do with conservation of soil, water, and forests.” From The Role of Research in the Conservation of Our Nutritional Resources, 1950. Lee Foundation for Nutritional Research reprint 85.
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Sources of Fundamental Nutrition
Poor Soils and Deficient Diets
A parallel, evident and known to all of us, is the case of the poor whites of the South who, though stuffing themselves all day long, are actually suffering from malnutrition because of the unbalance of their diets and the mineral and protein deficiencies of the food with which they are stuffing themselves—deficiencies actually arising from poor soils or poorly managed soils.
“We Are the Soil”
In a sense we are the soil itself—made out of the soil, its minerals, the vitamins that derive from the minerals, and their effects on glands, growth, metabolism, and even character and intelligence. In this respect the Russian assertion that environments can have as much effect as the genes of inheritance is not so far off the beam as some of our more strict Mendelians would have us believe. Any cattle or horse breeder knows that poor or unbalanced nutrition can change completely the behavior, the breeding capacity, the physique, and even the intelligence of an animal carrying the most carefully selected genes. This is notably true of some of our human stock in the Mid-South, [where] fine and pure bloodlines [have been] distorted and deformed by a poor nutritional environment.
The Obstacles to Better Food
With respect to the bulk increase in food to feed a starving world, Dr. Compton has much to say in his paper. I would quarrel with none of it. Indeed, I could, I think, add to it instances—increasing constantly and daily—of new means by which high-protein foods can be obtained in quantity by what might be described as artificially productive or technological means. I believe that even with the knowledge we possess today (which is perhaps as little as ten percent of what there is to know concerning food production), the world could feed itself better on the whole than it has ever been fed before. The means are at hand. The limiting factors are bad distribution, wars, political disorders, ignorance, and the maneuverings and stupidities of high-level politicians.
As early as 1850, the brilliant Swedish traveler and feminist Frederika Bremer, exploring the reaches of the Mississippi River Basin, expressed the belief that that rich area could easily feed 250 million people adequately. This is, I believe, an underestimate. We are limited in production today only by lack of adequate distribution and markets—by a poor and, on the whole, exploiting and shortsighted agriculture. Necessity and a better agriculture in the United States could provide food from the soil, without technologically chemical aids, for a population at least three times our present population of 150 million—and at the nutritional level to which we are accustomed today or even at a better level.
The Rise of Farm Knowledge
I think it conservative to say that we have learned more about soil, agriculture and animal husbandry, and the nutritional aspects of soil in the past fifteen to twenty years than in the whole history of the world before—and that what we know is only about ten percent of what there is to know. There have always been good farmers and good agricultural practices, many of them regarded in the very recent past as “superstitions” but recently proven to have the soundest of scientific bases. But, and this is a very big but, the farmers of the past did not know why these good practices worked and were unable to connect elements such as nutrition to the resistance of susceptibility of plants and animals to disease—and even, in the case of plants, to their susceptibility or resistance to attack by insect pests and those borderline organisms that apparently belong neither to the world of plants or of animals.
Agriculture: An Exact Science
In our work at Malabar Farm, and in my own concentrated work with farm, gardens, and soils over a lifetime, it has become increasingly apparent that good and profitable agriculture is not merely a dignified and complicated profession, it is also an exact science. It seems, for example, increasingly clear that the balances of minerals and organics in relation to optimum production of any given crop are as exact as the laws and balances of chemistry and physics. Any diversion from those balances results in inferior yields, both in terms of bulk and of nutrition. There is also increasingly weighty evidence to indicate that any diversion from that exact balance increases, in proportionate degree, the susceptibility of the given crop to disease and to attack by insects.
Importance of Animal Diets
Carrying this assumption one degree further, we have had every indication that livestock feeding on that given crop experience, in turn, similar variations in susceptibility or resistance to disease—and perhaps even to insect pests—in direct relation to the variations from that exact balance in the soils themselves. The sole exception in the case of insects might [be] those that arrive in such vast quantities and with such vast appetites that they will feed on anything at hand even though it be unpalatable or actually poisonous.
Within the last few years, a wholly miraculous world has been opened up in agriculture, animal husbandry, and horticulture, a world that includes factors relating to nutrition and health that hitherto were unknown or at least went unanalyzed…the world of antibiotics and the world of trace elements, such as zinc, copper, manganese, boron, and many others. [For instance] it has been known for centuries in Middle Europe that a poultice of moldy bread will cure and heal a stubborn wound or an ulcer, but it was only discovered, a few years ago, that the cure is effected not by the bread itself but by a substance, called penicillin, that is produced by the mold that feeds on the bread.
Role of the Trace Elements
It has been known for centuries in India—and even among our old-time farmers here—that a poultice of fresh cow manure is effective in disinfecting and curing a wound and that fresh cow manure will stop cannibalism among chickens and increase the rate of growth and disease resistance in hogs following cattle, but it was discovered [only] less than two years ago that the principal element involved [in these processes] is the new vitamin B12, of which the cow, utilizing her own stomach, is the world’s greatest manufacturer. Then, another amazing fact appeared in the picture, a fact that fits exactly into the general pattern that has been emerging slowly out of the soil through plants, animals, and people and their nutrition, resistance, and health: The cow cannot manufacture vitamin B12—nor can [the vitamin] come into existence elsewhere—without the presence of minute quantities of the trace element cobalt, since cobalt is a part of the molecular structure of the vitamin itself.
Experiments with Cobalt
This fact linked in directly with a long-known and dreaded malady—variously known as droop neck, salt sickness, and by other names—that occurred in certain definite regions of the United States, notably northern Florida, southern Georgia, and parts of Michigan and Vermont. For generations this malady—which afflicted people with lack of vitality and intelligence and a perpetually tired feeling and cattle with loss of appetite to the point of starvation—remained a mystery, and it was even looked on by some as an infectious disease endemic to those given areas. Then it was discovered that the disease was really a form of anemia, which responded to none of the accepted treatments. The first clue to a cure came from an animal husbandry instructor at the Michigan State College of Agriculture, when he began experimentation by feeding stricken animals various trace elements, in chemical salt forms available to their metabolism.
He got no results whatsoever until he hit on cobalt; within less than ten days after he began this treatment, the animals were on their feet and eating heartily. Since then, the anemia has been cured in both animals and people in those areas by the use of cobalt salts in direct therapy as well as by adding cobalt to the soils in which it had been totally lacking or had existed in a form unavailable to plants and consequently to the animals and people in those areas. In the case of the cattle, and possibly in the case of humans, the lack of cobalt had made it impossible for them to create through their metabolism the immensely important vitamin B12, and acute anemia resulted. Vitamin B12 is of very recent discovery, but it has already proven, when used by injection into the veins, [to be] a virtually certain cure for the most virulent forms of pernicious anemia and anemia that, for various reasons, has failed to respond to the previously known treatments of the malady.
Patterns and Balances in Nature
What might be called “the chicken litter” story is the most complete evidence of at least one of those patterns that exist in nature in areas yet undiscovered and of laws and checks and balances that operate within the realm of health, nutrition, and disease prevention and are gradually being put together bit by bit and understood. The story is in itself revolutionary and, when its full implications are realized, may be as important in the field of nutrition and disease as the great discoveries of Pasteur and his followers. It involves a whole chain of reactions involving the trace elements, notably cobalt, as well as the molds and antibiotics.
War Changed Poultry Conditions
Briefly, the story came about through the inquiries of large-scale poultry operators who, during the war, were short of labor and consequently unable to change frequently the chopped straw and other materials that their chickens ran about in inside the houses where they were kept continually enclosed, under unnatural conditions. This procedure, it had been universally taught, was absolutely disastrous to the health and welfare of the poultry. The “proper” procedure was to clean out the litter every few weeks or months and thoroughly disinfect the henhouses with strong doses of corrosive disinfectant. It was considered absolutely fatal to bring in new hens or raise young chicks on litter used previously by other chickens, and under normal labor conditions this practice was scrupulously followed by all poultry growers who kept hens enclosed under the modern, high-pressure egg-producing systems.
A Puzzling Question for Farmers
Under the disinfecting program, poultry growers everywhere were plagued by various poultry diseases and, in particular, by cannibalism among the chickens, whereby numbers of them would turn on a certain hen and peck her to death. All the remedies and nostrums employed were only temporary palliatives, with the exception of a crude remedy just coming into recognition at the time its final discoveries were made. This was a daily feeding of fresh cow manure, which the chickens showed a great liking for and appeared to appease their cannibalistic instincts. Here, of course, was a clue, but it passed unnoticed because the other parts of the pattern were not yet available.
When, during the war, the big poultry growers were unable to clean out the litter and disinfect their henhouses regularly, they were forced to put new pullets and even chicks on old litter, accumulated sometimes to a depth of a foot or two. They observed that, even in the case of new hens on old litter, their egg production increased, the disease rate went down, and cannibalism disappeared entirely. In effect they got results exactly opposite of those universally and direfully predicted by the poultry experts. The poultry raisers wanted to know why, and they asked the research authorities to find out. Here was a perfect case of a practice that “worked” contrary to all apparently scientific knowledge. Yet the reasons [for its success remained] unknown.
Poultry Sought High Proteins
Various agencies worked on the answer, but the principal work was done by the Wooster Ohio State Agricultural Experiment Station. There they discovered that although there was no grain whatsoever left in the old litter, the hens went on scratching, pecking, and eating something in the moldy straw. Investigation showed that they were actually obtaining, in considerable quantities, a high-protein substance—known as the animal protein factor—that was being manufactured by the molds within the old litter, which was itself in what might be described a state of being composted.
The next step was the discovery, elsewhere, of vitamin B12 and the consequent revelation that vitamin B12 was the most important and virtually the determining ingredient of the animal protein factor. The hens were getting this vitamin out of the old litter, which manufactured it for them and stopped the craving that led to their unnatural cannibalism. Moreover, the protein factor produced by the molds operating on the litter in the process of composting kept the hens in good health and induced them to produce more eggs, which were of a much higher fertility than those produced under the old fresh-straw, antiseptic-disinfectant treatment. Going still further, it was found that the molds within the old litter were also busily manufacturing antibiotics—perhaps of great variety including many as yet unknown [types]—that were actually attacking and destroying disease germs far more effectively than the old-fashioned prescribed disinfectants.
Disinfecting Destroyed Antibiotics
At Wooster disease rates and actual mortality of young chicks placed directly on old, used litter proved, on an average of many trials, to be as low as four percent—versus eighteen percent in pens heavily disinfected and supplied with fresh, clean straw. Of course, the old process of disinfecting the henhouses regularly actually did much more harm than good, for it destroyed, partially at least, not only the disease bacteria but also all benevolent bacteria and the molds that produced not only the animal protein factor, along with its vital vitamin B12, but the very antibiotics that were far more effective as disease killers than the conventional disinfectants.
Farm Wives Knew Not Why
Of course, it was long evident and known that in the flocks of farm, housewives who permitted their birds to run free—with access to the cow stable and pasture and on litter in the laying houses that had not been changed for years—the incidence of coccidiosis, range paralysis, and other contagious and infectious diseases was virtually unknown and cannibalism was unheard of. The feeding of fresh cow manure to chickens kept constantly enclosed should have been a clue. It provided them with quantities of the animal protein factor and consequently with vitamin B12 in abundance. In passing it is worth noting that only recently it was discovered that adding small quantities of Aureomycin [chlortetracycline] to the feeds of young animals increased their growth rate by as much as 50 percent.
Trace Elements Fed Cattle
All of these discoveries fit in with the experiments, observations, and discoveries that we ourselves have made at Malabar and have followed because they “worked.” We have never placed any animal on concrete but directly on our good gravel loam soils, heavily bedded with straw. In the dairy barn, we used the pen stabling system, by which cows are kept running loose in sheds on a foundation of manure to which a heavy layer of good, clean straw is added daily and in which molds and benevolent bacteria are permitted to grow and even luxuriate for a period of three to four months. Trace elements, including the known and indispensable ones—cobalt, copper, and manganese—have been fed regularly to the animals since the farm was set up. The soils in the open fields are kept high in organic material and heavily manured to condition them as high producers of fungi, molds, and antibiotics.
Some of our own results have been nothing short of remarkable in view of the old systems. In a milking herd of over one hundred cows, mastitis—the universal plague of dairymen—is unknown; milk fever and acetonemia are never encountered. The bacteria count of the milk is the lowest in the country, and brucellosis, or Bang’s disease, is disregarded although we import heifers constantly. These animals are tested before being brought on the farm but, upon being tested a few weeks later, always reveal a certain percentage of positive or suspicious reactors—sometimes because before they came to us they had been vaccinated. These heifers showing reactions are not segregated, and the same bull is used on them as on the Bang’s-free heifers. Within four to five months, it is impossible to get a positive reactor.
The Fight Against Disease
At Malabar we are not in a position to take chances with brucellosis for a variety of reasons: (1) we sell Grade A milk in large quantities (2) we are constantly selling second-calf heifers, which is a part of our business, and we cannot sell any [heifer] but a tested, Bang’s-free animal off the farm (3) about thirty people a day drink the whole, unpasteurized milk from the dairy herd. Moreover, we have a herd accredited as Bang’s-free by the state authorities. The only animals we have never been able to clear up—and that we eventually disposed of—were two heifers from an earlier, registered Guernsey herd that we vaccinated as an experiment.
Using Practices That Work
I am aware that the above statement touches on what has become perhaps the hottest controversy in the world of animal husbandry. I can only repeat that we practice what works, and that the recent discoveries regarding trace elements, antibiotics, benevolent bacteria, and the molds (all, incidentally, related to well-balanced and highly productive soils, in the optimum sense) continue to bear out and explain practices that we have long used because they work.
Research on Brucellosis
The University of Missouri is at present conducting intensive research with regard to brucellosis, under the direction of Dr. William Albrecht and A.W. Klemme, using the same methods that we have employed for eleven years, and they are achieving exactly the same results among a herd of cows, all showing positive tests at the time the experiment was begun. In this case again, there are many factors contributing to our belief in these universal laws and patterns, which, if observed and practiced intelligently, can greatly reduce sickness and infections of all sorts—not only in plants and animals but in humans as well.
It is interesting to observe the degree to which medical science is turning away from curative medicine—or the process of patching up people after they become ill—to preventive medicine, which creates conditions under which infections or diseases arising from deficiencies are very greatly diminished. It is also curious that for many or, indeed, most of the answers, medical science is turning to the soils and the products of soil, whether it be high-protein [foods] or trace elements or antibiotics or benevolent bacteria. In some cases science is merely explaining what good farmers and livestock men have known for generations and even centuries.
There have been many earlier clues to these patterns affecting nutrition and disease, including the working of the well-made and well-operating septic tank; the disease-free records of the farm wife’s flock of chickens; the use of cow manure and urine for various disinfecting and curative purposes; and the old moldy bread poultice, with its penicillin content.
We have long known the relation of iodine deficiencies to thyroid disorders, goiter, and cretinism, and we now know that a deficiency of iodine not only deranges the direct functions of the thyroid gland but also that, in deranging that gland, we lose the capacity to absorb and utilize proper amounts of calcium and phosphorous—no matter how much of these elements we take into our bodies. We know the relation of fluorine in minute quantities to the building of good teeth and the prevention of decay, and we have recently discovered the relationship between deficiencies in zinc and that dread disease leukemia. And [we know] the fact that deficiencies of copper or cobalt or manganese or all three can make breeding animals turn sterile.
The list is large and the pattern intricate. A deficiency affecting one gland may derange that particular gland so that its failure to function properly upsets the whole endocrine system and makes it impossible for the body to absorb and utilize other necessary minerals even though there is no deficiency of them in dietary terms.
The “Natural Pattern of Things”
It is my own opinion that during the past hundred years—since the discoveries of Pasteur—medical and veterinary science has concentrated almost wholly on bacteria and viruses and disinfectants and vaccinations and inoculations, and that the vice of overspecialization has aggravated this process. It is certainly true that in the past, for a time at least, certain maladies or organic disorders were treated as communicable diseases when they were simply maladies arising from nutritional—mineral and vitamin—deficiencies.
Perhaps all that time a much simpler and more accurate solution to many of these maladies and organic disorders has lain close at hand, in the natural pattern of things. We are, after all, creatures of the sea and the earth, still needing the minerals that exist in the sea and, to protect us, those elements coming from the earth that are born of the universal law by which life still exists and continues on Earth: the law of birth, growth, death, decay, and rebirth. In this process the minerals, the molds, the benevolent bacteria, and many other factors play immense and vital roles that we have only just begun to discover.
By Louis Bromfield, proprietor of Malabar Farm, author of The Farm, Pleasant Valley, Malabar Farm, Out of the Earth, etc. Reprinted by the Lee Foundation for Nutritional Research from The Role of Research in the Conservation of Our Nutritional Resources: Proceedings, Scientific Conference at the Dedication of National Dairy Research Laboratories, Oakdale, New York, June 2, 1950.
Reprint No. 85
Reprinted by Lee Foundation for Nutritional Research
Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53201
Note: Lee Foundation for Nutritional Research is a nonprofit, public-service institution, chartered to investigate and disseminate nutritional information. The attached publication is not literature or labeling for any product, nor shall it be employed as such by anyone. In accordance with the right of freedom of the press guaranteed to the Foundation by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the attached publication is issued and distributed for informational purposes.