Magruder Plots

I suspect one of the reasons there is a lot of concern over the future of food and agriculture is that most people are scarcely aware of the great research on these topics going on at universities all across the country.  In Unnaturally Delicious, I tell the story of Alexander Magruder, the first professor of agriculture at what is now Oklahoma State University, who started a scientific experiment on sustainability in 1892 that continues to this day (note: Oklahoma didn't even become a state until 1907).  Here are a couple of old images I obtained from Bill Raun who oversees the research today.



So, what did Magruder do?

On a plot donated to the college by a local family, Magruder plowed up virgin prairie soil to explore what would happen if the land was “sown in wheat year after year without the addition of any fertilizing material.” In short, Magruder was interested in the sustainability of farming practices that relied on no outside sources of nutrients. He wrote in 1892, “No fertilizers, either commercial or home-made, were used. It is our object to get at the natural value or strength of the soil that we may compare present yields with those of the future when barn-yarding and green manuring will have been practiced.” This was before the German chemists Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch figured out how to extract nitrogen fertilizer from the air. Mineral fertilizers were in short supply and were not widely used. The main fertilizer available to farmers was what it had been for centuries: animal manure.

You'll have to read the book to get the whole fascinating story of Magruder and the research plots. Despite a number of significant hurdles, amazingly the research is today still being conducted on the same soil Magruder plowed up in the late 1890s, and agronomists at Oklahoma State are still comparing yields of the original "check" plot to new treatments that have been added over the years to study the effects of adding manure or various "synthetic" fertilizers.  Here's a modern-day photo of the plot, which as you can see, is now a federal historic landmark. 

What have the researchers found?  Here's a slice:

The key message from the 120-year-old experiment on the Magruder plots is that, so long as genetics continue to improve, and especially if manure or nitrogen can be added back to the
soil, wheat yields on the Great Plains are not only sustainable but can experience continued growth.

Back in the 1890s, Magruder’s original check plot yielded fewer than thirteen bushels per acre. Remarkably, in the first decade of this century, that same check plot averaged fifteen to sixteen bushels per acre. Plots that have received only manure treatments for more than 125 years are now yielding more than thirty bushels per acre, and the plots receiving nitrogen, phosphorous,
lime, and potassium today routinely yield more than thirty five bushels per acre.