When hippies ruled the Tennessee Valley

How a U.S. government agency in the Deep South made fertilizer more productive than ever before.

Published August 25, 2008 11:09PM (EDT)

When I hear the words "Muscle Shoals," I tend to think, amazing hotbed of music studios that produced hundreds and hundreds of great pop songs. Until today, I did not also associate the Alabama city with an amazingly successful national fertilizer technology development program, run by the federal government for decades, and responsible, according to fertilizer historians, for a long list of critical fertilizer-related innovations.

The National Fertilizer Program, part of the Tennessee Valley Authority's original 1933 mandate (along with public power and general economic development in the region), may have been one of the more cost-effective government investments in United States history. An analysis carried out by the Office of Scientific and Technical Information in 1983 concluded that the U.S. had received an "accumulated benefit" of $49 billion through 1981, on appropriations of $413 million. Taking inflation into account, OSTI derived a cost benefit ratio of "$20 dollars in benefits for each dollar of program cost." TVA developed both new, high-nutrient fertilizers and the process technologies for manufacturing them.

The National Fertilizer Program was defunded in the early 1990s, and since then, the wellspring of federally subsidized innovation has run dry. Executives of a nonprofit offshoot of the TVA program, the International Fertilizer Development Center, are currently reminding the world of their predecessors' great achievements, perhaps hoping to direct some new government funding their own way (Thanks to BioPact for the link):

Dr. Amit Roy, IFDC President and CEO, says, "TVA's fertilizer program is recognized as one of the most effective research and development programs of any U.S. agency. Its benefits to the world far outweigh the public investment that the United States made in fertilizer research and development.

"It's time to launch a radical initiative to develop a new generation of energy-efficient fertilizers to help avert hunger and famine."

How the World Works' readers know that we care deeply about fertilizer. So it was fascinating to do a little digging and learn how exactly it came to be that fertilizer research would be considered a natural domain of expertise for the newly born TVA.

According to Norman Wegner, a former TVA official and professor of government at City College of New York, writing in the journal "Land Economics" in 1949, the typically poor soils prevalent in the American Southeast led to an early regional interest in fertilizers, especially when the dramatic effects of monocrop cotton agriculture resulted in plummeting yields through the region, along with the near desertification of the Tennessee Valley.

Fertilizer did not become a significant factor in farming until after the Civil War when many soils which had been depleted and abandoned were brought back into cultivation through applications of guano. Results were often startling. Cotton yields in some cases jumped from 100 pounds to 300 or even 500 pounds per acre. As a result, fertilizer contributed to the hold which King Cotton had over the South.

But even though the advantages of fertilizer application were obvious, private industry had little motivation or interest for figuring out how to apply fertilizer more efficiently or as part of ecologically sustainable land management practices. Wegner's critique might sound like old hat to current environmentalists and devotees of sustainable farming, but remember, this was written in 1949!

A careful appraisal of the record of the fertilizer industry seems to substantiate the charge that, despite its protestations to the contrary, it has been unwilling to adjust its production and sales techniques to the interests of the farmer and the needs of the soil as measured in terms of conservation and sound land use. Profit, not public interest, has been the industry's primary objective.

In this respect the fertilizer industry is no different than most businesses. The significant distinction, however, lies in the fact that experience and investigation is providing the basis for identifying the public interest in the production and use of fertilizers. For this reason it is no longer desirable to permit the fertilizer industry to continue its single-minded quest of profit, if that quest is not consistent with the national welfare and interest in soil fertility.

Credit for getting the TVA's National Fertilizer Program up and running is mostly due to Dr. Harcourt Morgan, a Canadian-born entomologist who somehow became president of the University of Tennessee before being picked, at age 66, as one of the TVA's three founding directors. Morgan was famous for spellbinding audiences of devoted farmers with his "Common Mooring" theory, which held that "everything was interconnected, everything was interdependent, and human beings should accept their place in a vast and partly divine natural plan." As summarized by a World Bank analysis of the TVA:

..."A common mooring" ... was based on the essential interdependency of people and nature. Land and water would flourish if properly care for, but would result in soil erosion if misused. Agriculture and industry should be balanced so that industrial growth did not upset the ecological balance against nature renewing itself. Based on these values and experience, Harcourt Morgan became responsible for TVA's early agriculture and natural resources programs.

I dunno, sounds like one big old hippie to me, doesn't he?

It is intriguing to think about this history of the TVA and fertilizer in the context of the current split between those who think synthetic fertilizer is unsustainable, and those who think that it is the only hope for feeding humanity. That may be the wrong fault line to divide upon. The real question is who makes the decisions as to how these new technologies are applied: private, profit-seeking enterprises whose only responsibility or goal is boosting the bottom line, or public agencies that, theoretically, are entrusted with looking at the big picture?

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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