During St. Martin’s agricultural past, people had to understand the land. Much farming knowledge in the Caribbean was passed down from African and Amerindian traditions. These two cultures had experience with tropical crops, and their methods are still used today.
In a little brown notebook Pierre Beauperthuy’s collection at The Old House we find another approach to understanding the land. It is a description of a process of analyzing soil. The method is simple, and could be performed by anyone with just a few items on hand:
The following is a method of analysing soils for ordinary agricultural purposes: Weigh a convenient quantity of earth to be analysed say one thousand grains dried in the open air; dry the same before a fire on paper, so as not to scorch the paper; re-weigh and the difference will be the moisture. Roast the residue, re-weigh, and the difference will be the organic matter. Pour a convenient quantity of muriatic acid on the remainder; when stirred and settled pour it off, and add oxalate of ammonia, the precipitate will be the lime. Mix the remainder with water and stir it well, when a little settled, pour off the turbid mixture and the suspended contents are argillaceous and the deposit siliceous.
By this process, the user can find out the relative amounts of moisture, organic matter, lime, clay and silica in the in a soil sample. These traits can help understand the richness, acidity and drainage of soils. In turn, these factors can help determine which crops may grow best, or how valuable the land is for farming.
While the process for analyzing soil is given in detail, there are no notes about what the results mean. Were St. Martiners making farming decisions based on soil analysis in the 19th century? At the very least, we know they had at least some of the skills to do so.
In the early 1950s, soil analysis was done here using more modern methods. As one could have done with the method in the notebook, organic matter and calcium carbonate were measured. Many other attributes were measured as well, like pH and the levels of nitrogen and phosphate. A report was published in 1955 about soils of St. Martin and the geology beneath them.
Soil studies in the 1800s may have decided which crop enslaved people were forced to cultivate: cotton, sugarcane or tobacco. The 1955 report told how well crops for the dinner plate and grass for livestock were growing in local soils. We could do better soil analysis today, but the need seems less urgent. Frequent droughts and crop-eating invasive animals like monkeys and iguanas are bigger farming challenges than soil quality. Sadly, our most dire need may be to find out how much we have poisoned and polluted St. Martin’s soils.
What is the soil like in your area? What grows best there? Tell us by writing in to The Daily Herald or firstname.lastname@example.org.