International Harvester Manure Spreader, circa 1905 / THF89810
The act of farming draws nutrients from the soil. If the nutrients are not returned, the soil will become depleted and lose productivity. One of the best ways to restore the soil is to recycle what was removed from it by spreading manure. Manure spreaders made this dirty job not-so-dirty.
Caring for the Land: Forgotten—Then Rediscovered
To Europeans living in the American colonies, the availability of land in North America seemed limitless. Farmers paid little attention to caring for the soil, quickly abandoning the fertilizing activities they had practiced in Europe. These farmers felt it more cost effective to simply move on to new land when the soil lost productivity, rather than put in the effort to restore its fertility.
By the 1800s, this strategy had begun to run its course. As land went fallow—first in the east, and later in the Midwest and plains—American farmers had to rediscover the soil stewardship practices they had lost generations earlier. Since much of the grain grown on a farm is fed to livestock, farmers began to gather up barnyard manure from cows, horses, pigs, and other animals and spread it on their fields to restore the soil’s fertility.
This short-handled manure fork (dated 1875-1890) could be used in a stall, wagon, or other confined area. / THF173108
The Dirtiest of the Dirty Jobs
Spreading manure is one of the most unpleasant and labor-intensive jobs on a farm. It requires a lot of effort and a strong constitution to scoop up raw manure and straw bedding from the barnyard and stalls into a wagon, and then fork it out evenly over many acres of fields. David C. Voorhees, a farmer in Somerset, New Jersey, wrote in his diary of spreading 215 loads of manure in September 1875 following the harvest. Spreading manure needs to be done properly to be effective. Too much manure in one spot can “burn” the soil, so clumps need to be broken up before they are tossed on the field.
If ever there was a farm task that was ripe for mechanization, it was spreading manure. Throughout the 1800s, dozens upon dozens of patents were issued for manure spreaders. By the 1870s, the design of manure spreaders had been sufficiently refined, and the manufacturing process had developed enough to make manure spreaders both effective and affordable.
This pamphlet for a Kemp & Burpee Manufacturing Co. manure spreader described its operation and included many testimonials. The company was absorbed by International Harvester in 1906. / THF125272
How to Make the Manure Fly
The more successful manure spreaders had two key design features: a continuously moving apron, or floor, which automatically moved manure toward the back of the wagon to be spread; and a beater at the back of the spreader to pulverize manure and spread it evenly across the field. With a good manure spreader, one person could do the work of five or more—and those other people were surely happy to do some other job.
The beater on this circa 1905 manure spreader broke the manure up into small pieces and spread it evenly on the field. / THF89816
A Remarkable Survivor
If spreading manure was hard on farmers, it was even harder on farm equipment, since manure rapidly corrodes and rots manure spreader parts. Consequently, early manure spreaders rarely survived to be passed on to the next generation, much less make it into a museum.
The Henry Ford’s circa 1905 International Harvester manure spreader is one of these very rare survivors. It is all the more extraordinary because it retains its original paint and parts. It is an excellent example of the prevailing manure spreader design of the early 1900s.
A Sustainability Hero
In many ways, farm practices can work against nature. The manure spreader is a great example of a tool that helped farmers reestablish the natural cycle by recycling the bounty of the soil back into the soil. The manure spreader does the dirtiest job on the farm—but it is a key part of making farming a sustainable undertaking.
Jim McCabe is former Collections Manager/Acting Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford.
A quick overview of tillage—that is, how farmers prepare land for growing crops—helps lay the groundwork (as it were). For thousands of years, farmers turned the topsoil over with a plow pulled by a draft animal—a single steer or team of oxen, draft horses, or mules. Henry Ford’s experiments with his “automotive plow” and subsequent introduction of the affordable Fordson tractor led to the replacement of draft animals on most farms after World War II, but the plow endured. Plowing broke up the roots of whatever vegetation was established before or between plantings. This was the first step in preparing a seed bed.
Man Using a 1939-1946 John Deere Model "B" Series Tractor / THF286596
The next step involved working the plowed ground to break up clods and create a more even surface. This required use of harrows or discs of various designs, as you can see here. Hitching technology installed on the Ford-Ferguson 9N tractor starting in 1939 and adopted by tractor manufacturers helped keep this disc tracking in line with the tractor. Farmers with large acreages under tillage favored row-crop tractors like the John Deere Model “B” in the photo below, where a farmer is discing a plowed field. The narrow wheel-spacing at the front end ran between rows of crops. After plowing and discing, some farmers harrowed fields to put the finishing touches on the seedbed.
Man Using a 1947-1952 John Deere Model "B" Series Tractor / THF286606
You can explore more than 40 tillage implements in The Henry Ford collection here. This is just the tip of the iceberg of mechanical innovations designed to ease the physically demanding process of field preparation. These tools helped farmers practice integrated pest management, too, because careful field preparation pulverized the organic material that insects like boll weevil in cotton or corn borer larvae lived in during the winter months. These pests could destroy crops in a pre-insecticide agricultural system.
Tillage, however, exposed topsoil to the elements. The more acreage farmers tilled, the more topsoil they lost due to erosion. In addition, severe droughts parched soil, destroying all organic matter. This exacerbated erosion as more and more topsoil blew away or washed away with heavy rains.
Planting and Cultivating
Different crops cover the ground in different ways. Farmers raising small grains drilled seed into prepared seed beds. The grain, planted at times of the year when other plant growth slowed, needed little to no cultivation. You can see grain drills and learn more about them here, including photographs of the Bickford & Huffman grain drill in use at Firestone Farm in Greenfield Village.
Prior to the adoption of in-season herbicides, most crops required cultivation after planting to disturb the roots of plants that threatened to choke out the cash crop. Farmers used different cultivators depending on the crops they grew, but cultivators further disturbed the soil and could hasten moisture evaporation.
Cultivating a Field of Cotton, Around 1911 / THF624655
The photograph below shows a row-crop tractor with an under-mounted cultivator at work in a soybean field. The single-front tire running down the middle of two rows ensured that the cultivators tracked between rows, to better remove weeds in between the cash crop.
Man Using a 1935-1938 John Deere Model "B" Series Tractor / THF286604
The Development of No-Till
You may have already grasped the connection between tillage and the no-till planter. Intensive cultivation of cropland contributed to topsoil erosion. The loss of the fertile topsoil reduced yields, and extreme weather worsened the loss. This led many to call for radical changes in tillage methods.
Agricultural scientists and engineers with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and state-based land-grant colleges addressed the challenge quickly. The University of Illinois established the Dixon Springs Agricultural Center in southern Illinois in 1934 to research soil erosion and low-till options. Purdue University in Indiana began the first experiments planting row crops in uncultivated soil in 1944. Russell R. Poyner, the agricultural engineer who worked on this project, went to work at International Harvester Company in 1945. By 1947, he submitted a patent for a mulch-tiller-planter designed for erosion control and conservation of moisture. He coined the new tillage approach “stubble mulch” farming, and as assignor to International Harvester, received U.S. Patent No. 2,577,363 in 1951. International Harvester produced the two-row McCormick M-21 till planter with fertilizer application only briefly and stopped altogether in 1955 due to sluggish sales.
Another early no-till proponent, agronomist George McKibben, worked at Dixon Springs. He and Donnie Morris, the machinery engineer at Dixon Springs, tested a zero-till planter by 1966. Morris describes the challenges he solved—specifically, how to get the seed in the ground. The research team used his “sod and stubble” planter starting in 1969, but an appeal to Deere and Company (the company that makes John Deere brand items) fell on deaf ears.
Allis-Chalmers released the two-row No-Til planting system in 1966, recognized as the first commercially available (and successful) no-till planter. The planter had a fluted coulter (vertical cutting blade) that sliced crop residue and prepared the seed bed just ahead of the fertilizer tank and planter unit.
The John Deere 7000 No-Till Planter: Agricultural Superstar
Peter Cousins, then Curator of Agriculture at The Henry Ford, acquired the John Deere 7000 No-Till Planter because, as he wrote in a memo to The Henry Ford’s collections committee on August 23, 1994, he considered it one of a few “superstars” of modern agricultural technology. In that same memo, he explained that of the three companies that introduced no-till planters, only Deere and Company survived. Allis-Chalmers left the farm implement business in 1985. International Harvester also ended its agricultural lines and broke up in 1985. Thus, he believed that only Deere and Company could locate, restore, and donate a first model no-till planter.
What qualifies as a “superstar?” Peter does not go into detail, but he names one other artifact in his memo—the FMC tomato harvester (1969). These two artifacts share at least three key elements that Peter considered as he strengthened The Henry Ford’s collection of 20th-century agricultural technology. First, the implement represents exchange between adopters, engineers, and others, a process described as the social construction of technology. Second, the implement transforms agricultural production. Third, the consequences of the transformation reverberate beyond farm fields.
A Modern John Deere No-Till Planter Sowing Soybeans / Photo courtesy of the United Soybean Board
The collaborative research undertaken by teams of experts at agricultural experiment stations across the country satisfy the first of these three “superstar” criteria. The experiments station staff worked with farmers to determine their needs and respond to them. The planter donated by Deere and Company to The Henry Ford, for example, had been used by Arthur Kruse on his Calmar, Iowa, farm between 1979 and 1994. It included “a wheel module planter with dry fertilizer option, insecticide box, unit mounted coulters, and cast closing wheels.” That insecticide box is telling—the stubble-mulch farming system came with another set of challenges. The stubble served as a vector for pests, namely the European corn borer in corn. A no-till planter that applied insecticide as well as dry fertilizer appealed to farmers even more.
Soybean Seedlings Emerging Among the Residue of the Previous Year’s Crop / Photo courtesy of the United Soybean Board
No-till planter technology changed the system of agriculture. The title of a July 16, 1994, New York Times article that Peter attached to the collections committee memo says it all: “New Way of Tilling Speeds the Plow’s Demise.” Today, no-till or conservation tillage helps farmers reduce erosion and retain soil moisture. Yet, input costs remain high as they apply herbicide to deaden growth before no-till planting, and then apply fertilizer and insecticides while planting.
On the other hand, Michigan State University researchers claim that “no-till farming practices have very positive economic and environmental benefits over decades.” Farm fields can benefit from the environmental benefits of topsoil retention enriched with hygroscopic (tending to absorb moisture from the air) organic matter. They can also realize higher yields over the long run.
Farmers, Please Share Your Stories
The Henry Ford would love to hear from Michigan farmers about your reasons for adopting no-till farming practices, either wholly or selectively, and what you believe the benefits are. You can e-mail us your feedback at MichiganSoybeanFarmers@thehenryford.org.
Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford. This blog post was produced as part of our partnership with the Michigan Soybean Committee to deepen understanding of the important soybean crop and to provide the public with the chance to learn more about agriculture and the innovations that have helped farmers feed the world. You can learn more about the partnership, soybeans, and soybean ties to The Henry Ford in our kickoff post here.
"Pulpit Rock on Presque Isle," Lake Superior near Marquette, Michigan, 1898. / THF118818
The border between the United States and Canada runs through four of the five lakes that constitute the world’s largest freshwater system—the Great Lakes. Policy makers on both sides of this fluid border have agreed to protect access and use of these bodies of water and their bays, arms, and inlets for more than 100 years.
View from the Harbor, Petoskey, Michigan, circa 1906. / THF118856
In the Boundary Waters Treaty of May 5, 1909, the United States and Great Britain (speaking for its Dominion of Canada) agreed to ensure free access and shared use of the navigable waterways. This sustained lucrative transportation and trade networks that the locks at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, helped facilitate.
The Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 also stressed the shared responsibility for protecting water quality. Specifically, the United States and Great Britain “agreed that the … boundary waters … shall not be polluted on either side to the injury of health or property on the other” (Article IV).
Man Drinking from Flowing Well, Wequetonsing, Michigan, circa 1906. / THF119004
Increased populations, however, created problems that the partners had to solve. The treaty called for a six-person International Joint Commission (IJC) to mediate or investigate issues that arose. When cholera outbreaks increased in 1912, the IJC launched a comprehensive study of the boundary waters. Research conducted over five years confirmed that untreated water polluted with raw sewage carried bacteria that caused cholera and typhoid. Findings affirmed transnational responsibility for protecting public health and drew attention to the need for communities to ensure drinking water purity. You can read the final report from 1918 here. And this work continues, as “The Great Lakes Water Quality Centennial Study – Phase 1 Report” (2021) underscores.
Industrial pollution, especially the release of manufacturing waste into boundary waters, further increased the sense of urgency to maintain Great Lakes water quality.
View from Incline Railway, Duluth, Minnesota, circa 1908. / THF119376
Beautiful postcards, like this illustration of the bridge over the Mackinac Straits, could not compete with the evidence of growing Great Lakes degradation.
Postcard, Mackinac Straits Bridge, circa 1957 / THF144098
Growing public concern over industrial pollution found an outlet in Earth Day, April 22, 1970. That same year, the IJC released a report that stressed the “grave deterioration of water quality” in the Great Lakes, drawing on the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 as precedent for reaffirming the rights and obligations of both parties to not pollute boundary waters.
On April 15, 1972, representatives from Canada and the United States signed the Agreement on Great Lakes Water Quality. The two countries pledged to restore and enhance water quality in the Great Lakes. This included general objectives to keep the boundary waters free from substances that result from human activity and that might negatively affect aquatic life or waterfowl, be toxic or harmful to humans, or create a nuisance, including concentrations that could encourage aquatic weeds or algae. The agreement also itemized specific water quality objectives and targets around controlling phosphorus and monitoring vessel design, construction, and operation, as well as vessel waste and other forms of shipping pollution. It specified procedures for handling polluted dredged spoil (the waste material produced by dredging) and discharge of pollutants into boundary waters. You can read this 1972 agreement here.
April 15, 2022, marks the 50th anniversary of this transnational agreement to protect the Great Lakes ecosystem. The IJC continues to function as established in the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909. You can read more about how the IJC links the ongoing transnational work to your life here.
Mission Point and Arnold Dock, Mackinac Island, Michigan, circa 1905. / THF114337
And if you find yourself in the boundary waters, recognize the long-term investment in Great Lakes environmental sustainability that helps protect those waters today.
Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford.
In the face of a challenge, a walk is one of the best ways to jump-start imagination and pave a creative path forward. Take that walk in nature, or, better yet, spend a few days in nature without technology, and research shows our problem-solving abilities soar by as much as 50%.
Inventors and problem solvers need a constant supply of potent inspiration. Books and journal articles, as well as brainstorms with mentors, colleagues, and friends, help. However, in many instances our greatest teacher lives right outside our doors. There, we can find knowledge, wisdom, experience, and a solid track record of success. Nature has the answers we need to solve every problem—if only we know where to look and how to ask the right questions.
Illustration by James Round
What Is Biomimicry?
Biomimicry is innovation inspired by nature. Whether we’re working on a challenge related to product development, process generation, policy creation, or organizational design, one of the smartest questions we can ask is: “What would nature do?” Asking this question, and then studying nature to find the answers, is a way to discover new sustainable solutions that solve our design challenges without negatively impacting the planet.
Undoubtedly, biomimicry is best learned by doing. It’s a field that requires us to open our eyes, ears, and hearts as we roll up our sleeves to dig deep (sometimes literally into the dirt) to understand, interpret, and then utilize nature’s design principles to solve the challenges we face in our lives.
“Biomimicry applies strategies from the natural world to solve human design challenges,” said Alexandra Ralevski, Ph.D., director of AskNature at the Biomimicry Institute based in Missoula, Montana. “This is a field that has the power to radically transform any industry.”
Being a Bridge: Janine Benyus and the Biomimicry Institute
With varied fields of expertise, including scientific knowledge, business planning, design thinking, and operations, to name just a few, practitioners of biomimicry serve as the bridge between professional groups like scientists, business managers, policymakers, engineers, and designers, who are often siloed from one another.
If all the world is an orchestra of voices, those who study biomimicry are the conductors making room for each of them, ensuring that they rise, shine, and harmonize together for the benefit of all.
It’s impossible to utter a single word about the theory and practice of biomimicry without paying homage to Janine Benyus, a biologist, author, innovation consultant, and self-proclaimed “nature nerd.” Benyus’ groundbreaking book, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, has made its way onto bookshelves and into the hearts, hands, and minds of problem solvers.
Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature by Janine M. Benyus. / Photo courtesy of Biomimicry Institute
“We’re awake now,” she said. “And the question is, how do we stay awake to the living world? How do we make the act of asking nature’s advice a normal part of everyday inventing?”
To explore this question and bring passionate and multitalented collaborators into community with one another, Benyus co-founded the nonprofit that would become the Biomimicry Institute in Missoula, Montana.
Over a decade later, the organization continues to provide education, support, and innovation inspiration for anyone and everyone who wants to bring the study and application of nature’s design genius into their work and into their lives.
One of the best ways to illustrate biomimicry’s power is to look at some examples.
Whales and Wind
A trio composed of a marine biologist, a mechanical engineer, and an entrepreneur created the most efficient fans and turbines in the world through inspiration found in humpback whales. On the surface, this may seem like an odd connection. How could humpback whales possibly teach a highly skilled group to build a turbine? It turns out that these whales were experts at the exact function these humans wanted to achieve.
The bumps on a humpback whale’s flipper are nature’s answer to what makes a wind turbine extra efficient. / Illustration by James Round
Humpback whales are among the world’s most agile animals. Though they can reach 16 meters (52 feet) in length and 40 tons in weight, they can lift a large portion of their bodies up out of the ocean and into the air in an acrobatic feat that leaves whale watchers breathless. A single jump or leap (called a breach) requires humpback whales to expend only 0.075% of their daily energy intake. Not only is the breach a stunning display of athleticism, it’s also a remarkably efficient action.
Marine biologist Frank Fish suspected the bumps (called tubercles) on the leading edges of the whale’s flippers held the secret to bending the ocean waters to their will. Working with Fish to study this mystery was engineer Phillip Watts. “I had been working in biomechanics and understood the importance of biomimicry, drawing engineering ideas from evolution,” shared Watts.
Together, Fish and Watts found that humpback whales achieved a rare point of design greatness: The tubercles on their flippers could increase lift while simultaneously reducing drag—a genius combination that gives these magnificent creatures such remarkable agility.
Along with a third collaborator, entrepreneur Stephen Dewar, Fish and Watts decided to model their turbine design on the humpback’s flippers. Not surprisingly, their newly fabricated turbines not only produced supreme performance like the whale’s but were highly efficient. Soon after, the trio’s newly formed corporation, WhalePower, became a leading manufacturer of energy-efficient rotating devices for various applications.
“Because nature had done so much work on this [for us],” said Dewar, “we were able to understand what was possible.”
For the Birds
Transportation aficionados know that Japan’s Shinkansen, known as the bullet train, is one of the world’s finest examples of efficient and elegant design. What many people don’t know is that the Shinkansen has a bird to thank for its performance. Known for its silent diving abilities, the kingfisher can break the water while barely making a sound or a splash to claim its favorite meal—minnows and stickleback fish.
The sleek shape of a certain bird’s beak is nature’s answer to conquering a bullet train’s unwelcome sonic boom. / Illustration by James Round
Shinkansen engineers faced a serious structural challenge while designing the bullet train: It created a sonic boom as it emerged from tunnels at high speeds. One of the team’s engineers, who had observed the kingfisher’s precise diving technique, suggested they mimic the bird’s beak shape in the train’s design. Voila! The sonic boom disappeared.
The bullet train’s unique design also had other unforeseen benefits. Its new nose safely increased travel speeds, lowered fuel consumption, and reduced operating costs.
Nature-Inspired Agriculture Infrastructure
A beehive’s structure, a spider web’s power of attraction, and an ice plant’s water storage system are nature’s answers to creating more sustainable food systems. / Illustration by James Round
To promote local agriculture, NexLoop focuses on creating renewable water infrastructure for sustainable food systems. Its main product, AquaWeb, captures, stores and distributes just the right amount of water at just the right time for local food production.
How does it strike this balance? AquaWeb takes its cues from the efficiency of nature, incorporating learnings from multiple organisms: beehives to create structural strength, spider webs to capture water, ice plants to store water and mycelium to distribute water.
Restoring Nature Using Nature’s Models
Biomimicry also guided the strategy of Nucleário, winner of the Ray of Hope Prize, an initiative of the Biomimicry Institute and the Ray C. Anderson Foundation. Company founders wanted to repopulate the forests of their home country, Brazil, where young tree seedlings face overwhelmingly adverse survival odds. Their roots are choked by grasses while their leaves are devoured by leaf-cutter ants.
Of the small handful of trees that reach their first birthday, 95% don’t live to see their second. It’s these long-shot odds that Nucleário sought to combat.
Like NexLoop, Nucleário combined the designs of several natural models to create its tree seedling pods—from the protective abilities of leaf litter and water accumulation talents of bromeliads (think of a pineapple) to the graceful air dispersal skills of anemocoric seeds.
“Our connection to nature and deep-rooted gratitude for all life inspires and sustains us,” said Bruno Rutman Pagnoncelli, CEO and founder of Nucleário. “We look to nature to guide our decisions, from design to raw material selection and everything in between.”
Combining the natural models that inspired them, Nucleário’s founders have built a planting system that provides protection as well as nutrient and moisture maintenance with less human intervention and tending. Their design is both lightweight and strong, with water chambers that collect and distribute water the same way nature does.
Hooked by Nature
Burdock burrs inspired the creation of Velcro during the mid-20th century.
In 1941, Swiss engineer George de Mestral was hunting and noticed his pants were covered with burdock burrs. He wondered how the seedpods could hold on and took to his microscope, examining the burrs’ “hooks” and the way they clung to fabric. After years of research, de Mestral was granted a U.S. patent in 1955 for what became Velcro, his famous hook-and-loop fastener.
What’s Next in Biomimicry?
“Using nature as a model for sustainability means that we always have a benchmark for our designs,” said AskNature’s Ralevski. “This benchmarking is critical to determine success and improve our iterations.”
A hallmark of nature, and by extension biomimicry, is that there is a progression of continuous improvement over time within the context of a specific situation—which could include the geography, environmental circumstances, and economic situation in which a design solution must exist and operate.
Biomimicry successes in energy management, transportation, and architectural design are spurring design experiments in fields as varied as medicine, materials science, textiles, and urban planning. We’re also beginning to see social science applications of biomimicry in community organizations, economic development, and communication systems.
“Biomimicry’s greatest legacy will be more than a stronger fiber or a new drug,” said Janine Benyus. “It will be gratitude and an ardent desire to protect the genius that surrounds us."
To explore some examples of biomimicry in artifacts from the collections of The Henry Ford, check out this expert set.