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Soil Science Society of America Journal Abstract -

A Perspective on Two Centuries of Progress in Soil Fertility and Plant Nutrition1


This article in SSSAJ

  1. Vol. 41 No. 2, p. 242-249
    Received: Oct 15, 1976
    Accepted: Jan 5, 1977

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  1. Frank G. Viets Jr.2



In the American colonial period soil fertility management depended on the empirical practices learned on similar soils in Western Europe, many of them known since Roman times. There were no experiment stations, colleges of agriculture, or known principles on which to build better practices. Advances in chemistry, physics and plant physiology starting very late in the 18th century catalyzed the beginnings of soil science in the late 1890's and early 1900's.

The most rapid advances in discovery of principles and putting them into practice have occurred since World War II aided by new electronic instrumentation, development of statistical theory and designs for field research, and new fertilizer and pest control materials. Among the developments put to practical use have been extension of the list of essential elements, soil and plant tissue testing for better guidance of fertilizer useage, and theories on ion transport from the solid phase to the root surface, which help to explain fertilizer placement effects, “fixation,” residual availability, and fertilizer efficiency.

Our present high-yielding agriculture depended on the development of systems with the timely combination of the best cultivars; soil, water and plant management alternatives; and plant protection. Soil fertility specialists have had a leading role in the development of these systems.

Although progress in development of soil fertility theory appears to have slowed, great challenges exist for making further progress using modern developments from engineering and other sciences. Among the problems are an ever-growing need for more food and natural fiber. This need involves further intensification for higher yields and the expansion of agriculture onto kinds of soils having unprecedented soil fertility problems. The conservation of fossil fuel energy; the management of nitrogen to improve efficiency of uptake, and to minimize denitrification and ground water pollution; and finally the development of cultivars that tolerate adverse soil conditions uncorrectable economically with traditional fertilizers and amendments are also necessary developments. To apply with selectivity all of the knowledge now available from diverse sciences will require broader training of individuals and more refined field measurements of significant variables affecting plant growth during the season.

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