Who killed Rocky Springs?

17 May 2013

Jim reports from his recent trip to the south eastern states of the USA.

Rocky Springs sounds like the name of a small town in a 1950s or 1960s movie. In fact it is (or was) a small settlement a few miles East of the Mississippi river. In 1860 it had 2,616 residents, now it has none. So, who, or what, killed Rocky Springs?

First of all, the name is misleading. There is not a rock in sight and there are no springs; water was accessed by wells. The soil is a deep loss, resulting from the wind depositing fine soil particles over countless years. This is one of the reasons for the settlement being established. Originally, the newly cleared land was fertile and easy to work.

However, the main reason for the establishment of the settlement was that it was a day’s walk along old Indian trails north of the delightful town of Natchez, which is on the banks of the Mississippi. Settlers in the northern states would float wood and firs down the Mississippi and sell them in Natchez and walk the 1,000 miles or so back home.  And they would stay the first night in Rocky Springs.

Now the land and the settlement itself, except a still active church, have returned to woodland. The only other signs of habitation are the Post Office safe and a few stone wells standing forlornly in deeply scarred woods. So who, or what, killed Rocky Springs?Rocky Springs Post Office Safe

There are two suspects; steam boats and soil erosion.

Steam boats were introduced in the 1850s and offered an easier and safer way for settlers returning home. Bandits soon proliferated on the walking tracks and it became very hazardous to walk home with all that cash. So the overnight accommodation business dried up.

The perceived wisdom is that the settlement had grown to such a size it would have been self-sustaining, provided that arable cropping continued to flourish. However, the virgin arable land soon lost its initial fertility and things became tougher. On top of that, soil erosion became horrendous and there are still signs of the huge gullies that formed after a heavy rain.

That set me thinking as to whether, with today’s technology, arable cropping would have survived and even prospered at Rocky Springs. Obviously, fertilisers would have enabled crop yields to be optimised in a soil that would soon lose any fertility built up under woodland. Secondly, would minimum tillage or no-till farming have prevented soil erosion? I don’t know the answer to this but we did see some arable cropping in the area and it was clear that no-till was being practised to establish both cotton and maize.

What struck me was the low intensity of arable farming in the south eastern states of the United States. It may be that there is tremendous potential to increase production in these states should the world food supply levels become more critical. In some areas at least, no-till would be essential to sustainability and glyphosate would be the key. Hence this herbicide, much demonised by some groups, would have an essential part to play. With a fresh start in these areas, there would be every reason to think carefully as to how it would be deployed in order to prevent resistance.  The penalties of over-reliance are only too clear in other parts of the United States.

I suggest that those who wish to go back to more traditional methods of arable production visit Rocky Springs. There isn’t much to see but the lessons are clear.