Farmers of 40 Centuries




F. H. KING, D. Sc.


F. H. KING, D. Sc.

F. H. King was formerly Professor of Agricultural Physics in the University of Wisconsin and Chief of Division of Soil Management, US Department of Agriculture. He was author of The Soil; Irrigation and Drainage; Physics of Agriculture; Ventilation for Dwellings, Rural Schools and Stables.

Back cover

A classic, this book is an invaluable resource for today’s gardeners and small-scale farmers, as well as for students of agriculture, organic techniques, and ecology.

Follow the fascinating journey of an extraordinary man who travelled to Asia to uncover the secrets of the ancient farming methods that have been used to feed millions of people for more than 40 centuries.

Dr. King, former chief of the Soil Division of the US Department of Agriculture, went to Asia in the early 1900s to find out how farmers in China, Korea, and Japan could farm the same fields for 40,000 years without destroying their fertility and without applying artificial fertilizer. This landmark book chronicles his travels and his remarkable observations of intensive cultivation that wastes nothing and conserves natural resources.

Rich in wisdom and information, Farmers of Forty Centuries details for modern farmers and gardeners information on:

  • Composting
  • Crop rotation
  • Green manuring
  • Intertillage
  • Irrigation
  • Drought-resistant crops

Preface by Dr. L. H. Bailey

We have not yet gathered up the experience of mankind in the tilling of the earth; yet the tilling of the earth is the bottom condition of civilization. If we are to assemble all the forces and agencies that make for the final conquest of the planet, we must assuredly know how it is that all the peoples in all the places have met the problem of producing their sustenance out of the soil.

  • We have had few great agricultural travellers and few books that describe the real and significant rural conditions. The Spirit of scientific enquiry must now be taken into this field, and all earth-conquest must be compared and the results be given to the people that work.
  • This was the point of view in which I read Professor King’s manuscript. It is the writing of a well-trained observer who went forth not to find diversion or to depict scenery and common wonders, but to study the actual conditions of life of agricultural peoples.
  • We in North America are wont to think that we may instruct all the world in agriculture, because our agricultural wealth is great and our exports to less favored peoples have been heavy; but this wealth is great because our soil is fertile and new, and in large acreage for every person.
  • We have really only begun to farm well. The first condition of farming is to maintain fertility. This condition the oriental peoples have met, and they have solved it in their way.
  • The newer countries may never reach such density of population as have Japan and China; but we must nevertheless learn the first lesson in the conservation of natural resources, which are the resources of the land. This is the message that Professor King brought home from the East.
  • It is a misfortune that Professor King could not have lived to write the concluding “Message of China and Japan to the World.” It would have been a careful and forceful summary of his study of eastern conditions. At he moment when the work was going to the printer, he was called suddenly to the endless journey and his travel here was left incomplete.
  • But he bequeathed us a new piece of literature, to add to his standard writings on soils and on the applications of physics and devices to agriculture. Whatever he touched he illuminated.


A word of introduction is need to place the reader at the best view point from which to consider what is said in the following pages regarding the agricultural practices and customs of China, Korea and Japan. It should be borne in mind that the great factors which today characterize, dominate and determine the agricultural and other industrial operations of western nations were physical impossibilities to them one hundred years ago, and until then had been so to all people.

Density of population

It should be observed, too, that the United States as yet is a nation of but few people widely scattered over a broad virgin land with more than 20 acres to support every man, woman and child, while the people whose practices are to be considered are toiling in fields tilled more than 3,000 years and who have scarcely more than 2 acres per capita, more than half of which is uncultivable mountain land.


Again, the great movement of cargoes of feeding stuffs and mineral fertilizers to western Europe and to the eastern United States began less than a century ago and has never been possible as a means of maintaining soil fertility in China, Korea or Japan, nor can it be continued indefinitely in either Europe or America. These importations are for the time making tolerable the waste of plant food materials through our modern systems of sewage disposal and other faulty practices; but the Mongolian races have held all such wastes, both urban and rural, and many others which we ignore, sacred to agriculture, applying them to their fields.

A people morally and intellectually strong

We are to consider some of the practices of a virile race of some 500 millions of people who have an unimpaired inheritance moving with the momentum acquired through 4,000 years; a people morally and intellectually strong, mechanically capable, who are awakening to a utilization of all the possibilities which science and invention during recent years have brought to western nations; and a people who have long dearly loved peace but who can and will fight in self defense if compelled to do so.

Learning from Chinese and Japanese farmers

We had long desired to stand face to face with Chinese and Japanese farmers; to walk through their fields and to learn by seeing some of their methods, appliances and practices which centuries of stress and experience have led these oldest farmers in the world to adopt. We desired to learn how it is possible, after 20 and perhaps 30 or even 40 centuries, for their soils to be made to produce sufficiently for the maintenance of such dense populations as are living now in these three countries. We have now had this opportunity and almost every day we were instructed, surprised and amazed at the conditions and practices which confronted us whichever way we turned; instructed in the ways and extent to which these nations for centuries have been and are conserving and utilizing their natural resources, surprised at the magnitude of the returns they are getting from their fields, and amazed at the amount of efficient human labor cheerfully given for a daily wage of five cents and their food, or for fifteen cents, United States currency, without food.


The three main islands of Japan in 1907 had a population of 46,977,003 maintained on 20,000 square miles of cultivated field. This is at the rate of more than three people to each acre, and of 2,349 to each square mile; and yet the total agricultural imports into Japan in 1907 exceed the agricultural exports by less than one dollar per capita. If the cultivated land of Holland is estimated at but one-third of her total area, the density of her population in 1905 was, on this basis, less than one-third that of Japan in her three main islands. At the same time Japan is feeding 69 horses and 56 cattle, nearly all labouring animals, to each square mile of cultivated field, while we were feeding in 1900 but 30 horses and mules per same area, these being our labouring animals.

As coarse food transformers Japan was maintaining 16,500,000 domestic fowl, 825 per square mile, but only one for almost three of her people. We were maintaining, in 1900, 250,600,000 poultry, but only 387 per square mile of cultivated field and yet more than 3 for each person.

Density of population

  • The rural population of the United States in 1900 was placed at the rate of 61 per square mile of improved farm land and there were 30 horses and mules. In Japan the rural population had a density in 1907 of 1,922 per square mile, and of horses and cattle together 125.


Need of mutual understanding

  • It is high time for each nation to study the others and by mutual agreement and co-operative effort, the results of such studies should become available to all concerned.
  • If some broad plan of international effort such as is here suggested were organized, taken in the interests of world uplift and world peace, it could not fail to be more efficacious and less expensive than increase in fighting equipment.
  • It would cultivate a spirit of pulling together and of a square deal rather than one of holding aloof and of striving to gain unneighborly advantage.


High efficiency

  • Many factors and conditions conspire to give to the farms and farmers of the Far East their high maintenance efficiency.
  • The portions of China, Korea and Japan where dense populations have developed and are being maintained occupy exceptionally favourable geographic positions as far as these influence agricultural production, giving them longer seasons where they grow 2, 3 and even 4 crops on the same piece of ground each year.
  • Nearly 500 million people are being maintained, chiefly upon the products of an area smaller than the improved farm lands of the United States.



  • The rainfall in these countries is not only larger than even in our Atlantic and Gulf States, but it falls more exclusively during the summer season when its efficiency in crop production may be highest.
  • The selection of rice and of the millets as the staple food of these three nations, and the systems of agriculture they have evolved to realize the most from them, are to us remarkable and indicate a grasp of essentials and principles which may well cause western nations to pause and reflect.
  • Each of these nations have selected the one crop which permits them to utilize not only practically the entire amount of rain which falls upon their fields, but in addition enormous volumes of the run-off from adjacent uncultivable mountain country.
  • It is evident that these people, centuries ago, came to appreciate the value of water in crop production as no other nations have. They have adapted conditions to crops and crops to conditions until with rice they have a cereal which permits the most intense fertilization and at the same time the ensuring of maximum yields against both drought and flood.
  • With the practice of western nations in all humid climates, no matter how completely and highly we fertilize, in more years than not yields are reduced by a deficiency or an excess of water.
  • China alone has as many acres in rice each year as the United States has in wheat and her annual product is more than double and probably threefold our annual wheat crop, and yet the whole of the rice area produces at least one and sometimes two other crops each year.


Conserving soil moisture

  • The selection of the quick-maturing, drought-resisting millets as the great staple food crops to be grown wherever water is not available for irrigation, and the almost universal planting in hills or drills, permitting intertillage, thus adopting centuries ago the utilization of earth mulches in conserving soil moisture, has enabled these people to secure maximum returns in seasons of drought and where the rainfall is small.
  • These people have with rare wisdom combined both irrigation and dry farming methods to an extent and with an intensity far beyond anything our people have ever dreamed, in order that they might maintain their dense populations.



  • Judicious and rational methods of fertilization are everywhere practised; but not until recent years, and only in Japan, have mineral commercial fertilizers been used.
  • For centuries all cultivated lands, including adjacent hill and mountain sides, the canals, streams and the sea have been made to contribute what they could toward the fertilization of the cultivated fields and these contributions in the aggregate have been large.
  • In China, in Korea and in Japan all but the inaccessible portions of their vast extent of mountain and hill lands have long been taxed to their full capacity for fuel, lumber and herbage for green manure and compost material; and the ash of practically all of the fuel and of all of the lumber used at home finds its way ultimately to the fields as fertilizer.
  • Both soil and subsoil are carried into the villages, composted with organic refuse and used on the fields as home-made fertilizers.
  • Manure of all kinds, human and animal, is religiously saved and applied to the fields in a manner which secures an efficiency far above our own practices.


Leguminous plants

  • It was not until 1888 that it was conceded that leguminous plants acting as hosts for lower organisms living on their roots are largely responsible for the maintenance of soil nitrogen, drawing it directly from the air to which it is returned through the processes of decay.
  • But centuries of practice had taught the Far East farmers that the culture and use of these crops are essential to enduring fertility, and so in each of the three countries the growing of legumes in rotation with other crops very extensively for the express purpose of fertilizing the soil is one of their old, fixed practices.


The oriental farmer is a time economizer beyond all others

  • The husbandman is an industrial biologist and as such is compelled to shape his operations so as to conform with the time requirements of his crops. The oriental farmer is a time economizer beyond all others. He uses the first and last minute and all that are between.
  • They are a people who definitely set their faces toward the future and lead time by the forelock. They have long realized that much time is required to transform organic matter into forms available for plant food and although they are the heaviest users in the world, the largest portion of this organic matter is pre-digested with soil or subsoil before it is applied to their fields.
  • It lengthens their growing season and enables them to adopt a system of multiple cropping which would not otherwise be possible.



  • By planting in hills and rows with intertillage it is very common to see three crops growing upon the same field at one time, but in different stages of maturity, one nearly ready to harvest; one just coming up, and the other at the stage when it is drawing most heavily upon the soil.
  • By such practice, with heavy fertilization, and by supplemental irrigation when needful, the soil is made to do full duty throughout the growing season.
  • They save in many ways except in the matter of human labor, which is the one thing they have in excess.
  • By thoroughly preparing the seed bed, fertilizing highly and giving the most careful attention, they are able to grow on one acre, during 30 to 50 days, enough plants to occupy 10 acres and in the meantime on the other 9 acres crops are maturing, being harvested and the fields being fitted to receive the rice when it is ready for transplanting, and in effect this interval of time is added to their growing season.


Silk culture

  • Silk culture is great and, in some ways, one of the most remarkable industries of the Orient. A low estimate of China’s raw silk equals in value the wheat crop of the United States, but produced on less than one-eighth the area of our wheat fields.
  • The cultivation of tea in China and Japan is another of the great industries of these nations.


Sanitary measures

  • Judged by the success of the most thorough sanitary measures thus far instituted, and taking into consideration the inherent difficulties which must increase enormously with increasing populations, it appears inevitable that modern methods must ultimately fail in sanitary efficiency and that absolute safety can be secured only in some manner having the equivalent effect of boiling drinking water, long ago adopted by the Mongolian races.
  • But above any other factor, and perhaps greater than all of them combined in contributing to the high maintenance efficiency attained in these countries must be placed the standard of living to which the industrial classes have been compelled to adjust themselves, combined with their remarkable industry and with the most intense economy they practice along every line of effort and of living.


Economy and industry

Almost every foot of land is made to contribute material for food, fuel or fabric. Everything which can be made edible serves as food for man or domestic animals. Whatever cannot be eaten or worn is used for fuel. The wastes of the body, of fuel and of fabric worn beyond other use are taken back to the field, before doing so they are housed against waste from weather, compounded with intelligence and forethought and patiently labored with through one, three or even six months, to bring them into the most efficient form to serve as manure for the soil or as feed for the crop. It seems to be a golden rule with these industrious classes, or if not golden, then an inviolable one, that whenever an extra hour or day of labor can promise even a little larger return then that shall be given, and neither a rainy day nor the hottest sunshine shall be permitted to cancel the obligation or defer its execution.

Leave a Comment