European Agriculture and Rural Economy, vol., 1 pp. 114-121 (1846)
Henry Colman

XV. — STEEPING SEEDS

I may as well here as any where recur to an experiment exhibited at the Dundee Show, of the effect of prepared steeps for seed. It excited great attention on that occasion. I visited the grounds of the gentleman who made the experiment; and he has been kind enough to write me, on the subject, a letter, which I subjoin.

"Seminaries, Dundee, 13th September, 1843.

"Sir,

"Since I had the pleasure of meeting you in Edinburgh, I have thought a good deal about the way in which I ought to proceed as to concealing for a time, or at once revealing, my method of preparing seeds, so as to produce superior crops of grain. I have at last determined that the better way is to make the process known to the heads of agricultural. societies.

"In accordance with this resolution, I have written to the Duke of Richmond, as president of both the National Agricultural Institutions of Great Britain, and to the president of the Royal Agricultural Improvement Society of Ireland, disclosing the processes which I have used; and I now do the same to you, as agricultural commissioner from the United States.

"I consider this plan better, in every respect, than sending prepared specimens of seeds, as the applications for these might soon become too numerous to be attended to.

"The specimens of growing corn, which 1 exhibited at the show here, were the produce of seeds steeped in sulphate, nitrate, and muriate of ammonia; nitrates of soda and potass, and combinations of these. It was objected by some that the tallest specimens of oats were too rank, and would break down before coming to the ripened seed. I should by no means be afraid of such a result, as the stems were strong in proportion to their height; but should there even be some reason in the objection, the result might be modified by a modification of the process. The tallest oats were prepared from sulphate of ammonia, and I am convinced, from experiment, that the addition of a portion, my one half, of sulphate of soda, or sulphate of potass, would so modify the growth as to make the stalks moderately high, and at the same time preserve the superior productiveness of the seed.

"The barley, which, you may perhaps recollect, consisted of an avenge of ten stems from one seed, and thirty-four grains on each stem, was the produce of seeds steeped in nitrate of ammonia. I may mention that the best illustration of the comparative productiveness of prepared and unprepared seed was exhibited by the contrast of wheat, sown 5th July, which, by the 10th of August, the last day of the show, presented the following results: the prepared seeds had tillered into nine, ten, and eleven stems; the unprepared into only two, three, end four; end both were from the same sample of seed, and sown in the same soil, side by side.

"The various salts above specified were made by me from their carbonates, and were exactly neutralized. I then added from eight to twelve measures of water. The time of steeping varied from fifty to ninety-four hours, at a temperature of about 60° Fahrenheit.

"Barley, I found, does not succeed with more than sixty hours, steeping. Rye-grass, and other cultivated grasses, may do very well with from sixteen to twenty hours; but clovers will not do with more than eight or ten hours, for, being bilobate, the seeds are apt to burst in swelling.

"On the 16th ultimo, I caused four cart-loads of earth, dug from about six feet under the surface, to be laid over tilly ground, and spread there, and in this virgin soil, totally destitute of any organic matter, I sowed seeds of oats and barley prepared in seven different ways; but, having to leave on the 31st, I could not form a correct estimate of the comparative progress of the seeds, as the season is far advanced, end vegetation slow; but, it in health, I shall revisit the place in October, end shall then be able to judge better of the result. Along with the prepared seeds, 1 sowed also some unprepared, both in the virgin soil and in pure sand. They had all sprung well when I left. I hope soon to have the pleasure of writing you again on the subject. Meantime,

"I remain, sir,

"Your most obedient servant,
"Jas. Campbell

"Henry Colman, Esq. London."

There were exhibited, on this occasion, specimens of oats, barley, wheat, and rye-grass, raised from seed chemically prepared. Mr. Campbell adds in another letter as follows:-

"It is now a considerable time since I began to imagine that, if the ultimate principles, of which the proximate constituents of most of the gramineous seeds are composed, could by any means be made so to enter the substance of the seed, and at the same time not to injure its vitality, as thoroughly to imbue its texture with an excess of these principles, the end (viz., of superseding manures) would be accomplished; and it is by doing this to a certain extent that I am certain I have succeeded.

"The specimens of oats prepared from sulphate of ammonia are magnificent, both as to height and strength, being six feet high, and having stems like small canes, and consisted of an average of ten stems from each seed, and 160 grains on each stem. The oats from muriate of ammonia were vigorous and equally prolific, but not so tall; and those from the nitrate of soda and potass were nearly equally prolific, but still less tall. Big, or bear, from a preparation of nitrate of ammonia, like that in which the barley was steeped, had an average of eleven and a half stems from each seed, and seventy-two grains on each stem."

Mr. Campbell states "that the ground in which his experiments had been made had received no manure for eleven years, and in it there was little organic matter of any kind." It was in a yard, or old garden, next to his house; but unless he had made an analysis of the soil in respect to the amount of organic matter contained in it, I should conclude that his judgment here was at fault. This circumstance, however, is of little consequence, since the experiments were comparative, and made in the same soil, and under the same circumstances. The plants had been principally removed from the ground when I saw it; and I had only to regret that the experiments, of which, from the apparent results, he could hardly, beforehand, have realized the importance, had not been made with more scrupulous exactness. They are, however, sufficiently interesting and decisive to induce other experiments, in which the results may be more defined. Mr. Campbell's disinterested conduct in communicating them to the public does him the highest honor.

Mr. Campbell has since sent the following communication to the Agricultural Society, as to the results of the unfinished experiments noticed in his former letter:—

"The salts were neutralized by adding the carbonates until effervescence completely ceased; and this was done that there might be no excess of acid." Mr. Campbell adds, with respect to his succeeding experiments, which he proposed to examine on the 12th of October, that they were completely successful, showing a decided contrast in favor of the prepared seeds. In the soil dug up from 6 or 8 feet under the surface, the prepared seed showed plants with seven and eight stems, while the unprepared had not more than three.

The preparation of seeds by steeping is not a new process. The preparation of wheat, by soaking in brine or in a preparation of arsenic, has been recommended, and, so far as my own experience and observation go, may be considered as a sure remedy against smut. The steeping of Indian corn in a solution of copperas and of saltpetre has likewise been supposed to stimulate and promote its growth, though this is not so well established as might be desired. But a scientific attempt, like that of Mr. Campbell, to combine, upon chemical principles, the ingredients or salts deemed essential to the growth of the plant, and to furnish them by soaking the seed in them, is a rare, though not wholly an unknown attempt. Its partial success, in this case, affords strong encouragement to further experiments. The steep may be supposed to operate in two ways — either as a stimulant, to cause the seed to develop its powers of germination more rapidly and fully than it otherwise would do, and thus gather more of the nourishment which it needs from the soil or the atmosphere; or as supplying that proportion of saline or inorganic matter which the plant requires. This is indeed very small, "though absolutely essential to the perfect condition of the seed, and to the healthy growth of the plant which springs from it." This is said to be, in wheat and barley, from 1 1/2 to 2 per cent, of the whole weight; and in oats it is said to be 3 1/2 percent, though much of this is in the husk of the oat. In being applied at once to the seed in a form to enter and saturate the pores of the seed, it may be expected to be taken up by the small roots of the plant as soon as they are developed; and its effects, therefore, must be immediate. But whatever may be the theory in the case, should Mr. Campbell's results be confirmed by further experiments, the fact will be obviously of great importance.

From some pamphlets translated from the German by Professor Johnston, extracts from which have been published in the Edinburgh Journal of Agriculture, it seems that great discoveries have been made in Germany, in the steeping of seeds; and, in the enthusiastic expectations of one of the discoverers, the application of manure may be dispensed with, and the rotation of crops on the same soil, in order to recruit the soil, will no longer be necessary. The confidence with which these experiments are given, and their results proclaimed, would seem to entitle them to attention.

I shall here take leave to quote from a paper of Professor Johnston some of these statements. Franz Heinrich Bickes, of Castel, Mayence, has published An Account of the Discovery of a Method of cultivating the Soil without Manure. He says, "It is twelve years since the discovery was made. The experiments have been made at various seasons of the year, and the same crop has been repeated on the same soil without regard to the usual rotation. The cost is trifling, and the supply of the materials to be substituted for manure is inexhaustible. The testimonies in its favor are said to be from practical men; and they assert that, from examples in the Imperial Garden in Vienna, in general the prepared seeds exhibited a very much stronger growth, were of a deeper green, had thicker stems, finer and fresher leaves, larger grain, and the grain was thinner skinned, and therefore contained more meal.

"The hemp was of a much larger size, and had many side-shoots bearing seed.

"The Indian corn had more ears.

"The buckwheat was upwards of three feet high, and full of seed.

"Wheat, rye, barley, and oats, are thicker, and have more numerous stems, larger ears, and more grains in each.

"The lucern was beyond all comparison stronger, had more shoots, and its roots were as thick again.

"The disks of the sunflower were doubled in diameter; the cabbage had larger heads, the cucumber larger fruit, while the unprepared seed yielded nothing."

Other testimonials are added from persons of respectable standing and condition. Other plants, besides those above mentioned, are said to have been equally benefited. One fourth only of the usual quantity of seed, of wheat and rye, was sown on a poor, unproductive clay; and yet the product was greater than on the newest land of good quality, though aided by manure.

"Ten or twelve potato plants gave, on an average, thirty large potatoes each, and had stems seven feet in height.

"Fifteen stalks of Indian corn had, on an average, five ears each, some having as many as eight or nine ears to a single plant.

"The buckwheat was four and a half to five feet high; the flax had four to five stems from each seed. The white clover was as large in the leaves and stems as the red clover usually is; the red clover and lucern three feet high."

The experiments of Mr. Campbell induced many farmers to try the effects of steeps upon their seeds. One of the most experienced and intelligent cultivators in Scotland informed me that his success had been partial. He had made numerous experiments, and in some instances with remarkable, in others with no effect. I am not yet in possession of the details, which I presently hope to obtain from him, and on which I shall greatly rely. As my Report is going through the press, I have been favored with a reply to a letter written to Mr. Campbell on this subject, which I annex.

"The accounts which I have received from various quarters are conflicting, some exceedingly good, and others equally bad; but this I have learned, that the greatest success has attended the experiments on a great variety of soils.

"I believe — and this is also the opinion of many others — that, where failures have taken place, they are due either to mismanagement or to the drought of the season. The results of my own experiments are highly favorable; and I have a variety of specimens for the exhibition at Glasgow."

He adds, "My nephew writes me as under."

"I have just seen Sir John Ogilvie's overseer, and he states that the steeped oats sold by roup [= at auction], yesterday, at 1d. per pole [=rod of 16.5 ft] more than those which were not steeped on the next rig."

"N. B. The prepared seeds were sown much thinner than the unprepared, at least one quarter.

"Cranch & Co., (Newcastle-upon-Tyne,) 30th July, write, 'We have received some good accounts of the steeps.'

"P. Bruce, (Hull,) 30th July, writes, 'I am glad to inform you that one or two parties tell me that they will buy the steep again, supposing that any falling off is attributable to the drought.' He has himself seen some that looks very well.

"I may add that any that I have hitherto seen looks exceedingly well, better than the unprepared, although sown thinner."

I cannot say that I am sanguine as to those extraordinary results to which, from the quotations which I have made, some persons look forward, when there will be no longer a necessity for a rotation of crops, and even the application of manure to the soil may be dispensed with. But I cannot help thinking that much remains to be achieved, and that much may be hoped for. We are not to be surprised that failures occur; but one well-authenticated experiment, conducted in an exact manner, and in which the extraordinary results may be directly traced to the application, is sufficient to outweigh a hundred failures. The exhibition at Dundee, supposing Mr. Campbell's statements to be true, — and I know no reason to doubt, but, from his manly conduct, the best reason to believe them, — satisfied me that something important had been effected. I rely little upon mere opinion and conjecture, even of parties above suspicion of dishonesty. The mortification of failure, the desire of success, the ambition of notoriety, and especially any degree of personal or private interest, — all may serve to color the vision, to bias the judgment, and present grounds of hesitation, if not of distrust. With a full share of confidence in the virtue of men, I have been too often disappointed not to require the most ample evidence in all cases of moment. I was not a little amused in visiting, with several gentlemen, the farm of an excellent cultivator the last summer, that, when he showed us in his field of swedes, with an air of the most confident triumph, the surprisingly beneficial effects of a certain application upon some marked rows, every one of the party except himself was satisfied that the rows in question had no other distinction than that of absolute inferiority to all the rest. It would have been as useless as it would have been uncivil to avow our convictions to him, for men are seldom convinced against their will, and assaults upon an unduly-excited organ of self-esteem, if they do not arouse combativeness, inflict only needless pain, in agriculture, being eminently a practical art, and as yet, I believe, claiming not a single theoretical principle as established, excepting as first deduced from long-continued practice, experiments are of the highest moment. The careless and slovenly manner in which they are commonly conducted, the haste with which men jump to their conclusions, the variety of circumstances which belong to every case of importance, and the imperfect manner in which these circumstances are observed and detailed, are the just opprobrium of the agricultural profession. A most intelligent and agreeable friend, in speaking of the best modes of fattening poultry, and in expressing her distrust of some which were recommended, said that her venerable grandmother always fed and fattened her poultry in a very different way. But upon being asked whether her grandmother's fowls were the best layers, brought up the most chickens, and produced the best poultry for the table of any to be found, she was compelled to answer that on this point she had no information. A learned naturalist, who, in many respects, was justly celebrated for his acquirements, was once asked why black-wooled sheep consumed more food than white, and proceeded gravely to give half a dozen philosophical reasons for it, without having once inquired whether the fact were so.

It is strongly hoped, that, under an enlightened system of agricultural education, for which the auspices now are most encouraging, and by the establishment of experimental farms, many important suggestions, in relation to agricultural practice, as yet only conjectured, may be determined, and much actual progress made in agricultural science, by the only infallible teacher — exact and enlightened experiment.