1915 Ohio Soil Survey

This is only loosely related to other material on this blog, but hey, what’s the point of having a blog if you can’t write about what you want? Next week I’ll get back to the usual data collection, analysis, and mapping content.

Earlier this month I spent some time on the NRCS website gathering information about Ohio soils and came across this gem: Reconnoissance Soil Survey of Ohio. I’m fascinated by both the extremely detailed content and the narrative style. It goes into descriptions of both soil and Ohio that seem unnecessary, but are rather delightful. Below are a few of my favorite excerpts.

The introduction of this document has a section titled “Nature and Purpose of the Survey,” which begins with this flowery passage about the variable productivity of soils.

That soils differ in crop-producing power is one of the most universally recognized facts in agriculture. They may be watered by the same rain, warmed by the same sun, planted with the same seed, cultivated with the same care, and, in fact, treated exactly alike in all respects, but still, owing to inherent differences, the yields secured upon one soil may be two or three times as great as upon another. The fact, however, that all soils are not adapted to the same kind or variety of crop, do not require the same kind of fertilization or cultural treatment, and are not suited to the same system of farming is not so generally admitted or so well understood, although both experiments and experience indicate the latter group of facts is just as true as the former.

For someone that studies variable rate technology, reading that all soils should not receive the same treatments in a document from over 100 years ago is exciting! I’m also seriously wondering if the writers were paid by the word…

Following the introduction, the paper has an extensive section titled “Description of the Area.” I won’t bore you with the lengthy comparisons of Ohio’s latitude to other noteworthy cities, but I will pull out a paragraph about transportation and trade.

Ohio is exceptionally well situated both as regards transportation and markets. Although it is separated from Canada only by the waters of Lake Erie, the Sate is really very near the center of the country’s population, manufactures, wealth, and trade. Almost all of the great highways of commerce from west to east pass through it. Railroads traverse it in every direction, giving quick and efficient service to all parts of the country. On the north Lake Erie and along the eastern and southern borders of the Ohio River furnish excellent water transportation, and a large commerce is carried on upon these waters.

The first time I read this paper, I was struck by how many details about Ohio I have never even considered including in my publications. In our global society, most people know where Ohio is located. I’ve included details about Ohio that distinguish it from other locations or justify why a study taking place in Ohio may be different from a similar study in a neighboring state, but that is distinctly different from how this site description feels. This description definitely feels like a justification of why Ohio is a worthy place to study, which is something I’ve never had to include.

Instead of organizing the paper by region and then describing all aspects of soil in that region, the paper is organized by topic. The soil section goes into underlying geology, glaciation patterns, soil classifications, residual limestone, and so on. If you wanted to learn everything you could on soils in the clay pan of northwest Ohio, you’d basically have to read the whole thing. Eventually it goes into 1-page or so descriptions of each major soil series, so if you know the series for your area you can jump right to that to learn all about it.

landvalues1911.PNGFollowing the descriptions of soil series there is a section relating soil quality to land value. Interestingly, they did not separate out average land prices over $100 per acre, even though that category groups land from $100/acre to over $300/acre. Land over $200 per acre was generally located near a major city, so its price was considered to be more impacted by location that soil quality. This color scheme reduces the visual confusion the high prices would cause and allows the reader to focus on the relationship this map was written to illuminate: the impact of soil quality on price.

The great thing about soils is that they don’t change super fast, so a lot of the information in this report is still perfectly valid. It has a great topography description for the state, and a nice review of how glaciers and parent materials impact Ohio. I liked having the opportunity to reflect on how scientific writing conventions have changed, and would definitely recommend this USDA report for anyone with an interest in Ohio soils or the history of science. Let me know if you have a chance to read any of it– it’d make a fun journal club article!

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