Feature Contributors Archives for 2023-01

Purdue Extension of Fulton County-Chemicals of the Past


Chemicals of the Past

Occasionally I receive very old agriculture books. Looking through them gives me an opportunity to compare agriculture practices of the past. In some cases, we talk about how better things were in the good old days. That is not always an accurate statement when we look at the pesticides of the past.

The book I was recently looking at was printed in 1945 and was an individual compilation of many people’s ideas. They refer to it as “The Book of a Thousand Authors.”

One of the first remedies was a sheep dewormer. Parasitic worms are a serious issue in sheep and goats that have caused many deaths. Since 1945, several dewormers have been developed that can be used on livestock. Unfortunately, it seems almost as quickly as they are developed, the parasite builds up a resistance to these miracle products and treated animals may die.

The worm reduction product of the past that is no longer is Black Leaf 40, a 40% solution of nicotine sulfate. As a child, I would see people feed an eager goat a cigarette or cigar and pronounce them dewormed. Nicotine is an insecticide that can be very harmful if not given at the proper dosage. The actual dosage of the product needed to control the parasites is near the toxic level for the animal. Giving the animal a cigarette may kill a few worms but there is no scientific determination of the actual dosage or just how many cigarettes it takes to kill most of the worms.

Today’s insecticides are designed to be less toxic to animals and more toxic to pests. The old days of DDT, lead arsenic, and mercury chloride are thankfully behind us. Today’s pesticides are safer for humans than those of 70 years ago. But they still need to be treated with respect. Even products that are relatively low in toxicity might, over time, result in other human or environmental issues.

The 1945 book also recommended a change in pasture for sheep every year. A great idea but further research now has sheep producers rotating several times a year and keeping sheep off pastures for over a month. This keeps the plant tall and the worms less available to the animals that would naturally graze grass to the ground.

With all pest control, it is not just about the chemicals, it starts with other cultural changes. We need to bring in the chemicals as the last resort.


Mark Kepler

Purdue Extension Educator, ANR

Fulton County

Purdue Extension of Fulton County-Adapting Buckwheat Apples




If there was an area of the world I would like to see, it would be on the Asian continent. I would love to learn about places where agriculture started and the transportation system that developed along the silk road. One of those places that attract my interest is Nepal and Tibet.

Sitting on top of the world in the Himalayan Mountain range is this ancient culture that has subsistence agriculture. They only grow enough to survive and make very little selling to others. Livestock, such as sheep, goats, and cattle that feed off the grasses growing in that area is their main source of food.

A magazine article I recently read about a trip to Tibet and Nepal had the author explaining the locals were going into fields of buckwheat and apple orchards. He was in Kali Gandaki River valley located at an elevation of around 8,000 feet above sea level. How perfect. The crops grown in that area are ideal for the inhospitable country they live.

Buckwheat is a fast-growing and maturing plant native to northern Asia. It will produce a seed crop in about two months. Historically, its flexibility and wide adaptation led it to be grown on more than a million acres in the U.S. in late 1800s. Today it is around 70,000 acres.

The number of acres is increasing as buckwheat has also been used widely as a cover crop to smother weeds and improve the soil. The crop seems to improve soil tilth and is reported to make phosphorous more available as a soil nutrient, possible through root-associated mycorrhizae. Buckwheat flowers profusely, making them popular with bee keepers and an attractive crop in the landscape. Buckwheat is also quick to die following a frost, further contributing to its short life. I also have noticed that it seems to reseed itself quickly.

Of all the fruit trees, apples seem to take the cold weather the best. This is one of the coldest hardiest plants in our area. Add to that its native range is also in Asia. They originated in Kazakhstan, in central Asia east of the Caspian Sea. The capital of Kazakhstan, Alma Ata, means “full of apples.” I suspect the apples in Nepal are shorter-season varieties that we would call summer apples because they mature quickly.


Going to a far-off land, or staying home, we can see the same crops. The arable farmlands of Nepal only account for 2% of the region’s total area. Although the main crop for the region is barley, there is also corn, millet, wheat, and canola. We grow them in Indiana, but there has to be something majestic about looking at a buckwheat crop with a snow-capped mountain of 26,000 feet in the background.


Mark Kepler

Purdue Extension Educator, ANR

Fulton County

Purdue Extension of Fulton County-Fertilizer




It was September 1962, according to my grandmother's writing in the family record book, 20 bags of 12-12-12 fertilizer had been bought for $39.35. Based on the time of year, it was probably fertilizer for the upcoming planting of wheat.

We have all grown up with a bag of 12-12-12 at the local store. Many of us have used it as the starter fertilizer for our vegetable garden and frequently it is the choice of people for their lawns. But is it the product we should be reaching for?

Many times, we hear as humans about eating a balanced diet. A balanced diet does not mean eating the same amount of everything, but consuming things in proportion. It really is no different in the plant nutrient world. The first number in fertilizer is nitrogen, then phosphorus, and finally potassium. Plants need those nutrients in various ratios. For a home lawn, the preferred ratio of these elements is 4:1:2. That would translate into buying a product with a label of 24-4-8. This would be more in line with what most all plants need and that is greater levels of nitrogen, a little phosphorus, and potassium a tad bit higher.

When we use 12-12-12 on our lawn, we short the plant's nitrogen, give too much phosphorus and get the potassium about right. In today's world with issues of excess phosphorus in our lakes and streams and the subsequent alga blooms. Some lawn fertilizer contains no phosphorus. In many situations that is just fine as there already may be adequate levels of phosphorus in the soil.

Soil testing is what tells us what amounts of phosphorus and potassium we need. Nitrogen is so water soluble it must be added yearly at rates that have been scientifically determined through years of research.

Today's farmer does not use 12-12-12. They have done extensive soil testing and put on the amounts needed by the crop based on what is already in the soil. Today those 20 bags of my ancestor's fertilizer would cost almost $1000.00. It has become expensive, and we cannot afford both financially and environmentally to over or under-apply it.



This past summer I was out at a horse farm looking at a pasture with our Purdue forage specialist. When asked what fertilizer they use, it was 12-12-12. I have heard this person give many programs on the potential vices of 12-12-12. I think he did a really good job of calmly explaining why this program should not be repeated.

In the leadership programs I teach, I talk about how many things stymie us today that are rooted in the past. Included in that is the keyboard arrangement I am typing on that was derived in the late 1800s. In order to stop the mechanical keys from jamming they came up with this more cumbersome arrangement to slow down the typing speeds. We are still encumbered with it 150 years later.

We do not have to repeat what my grandparents did 61 years ago. Soil tests are under $20, a small price to pay for a large fertilizer investment. Unlike my typing on this keyboard, when using fertilizers, we do not have to be stuck in the past.


Mark Kepler

Purdue Extension Educator, ANR

Fulton County