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«About the author: George Christie’s first contact with commercial agriculture was as a summer field worker in the potato plots at Cornell ...»

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Agriculture in New England


Native American Roots

To Improve the Land

Farm Size and Land Use

Economic Factors in New England Agriculture

Farm Layout, Buildings and Tools

Farm Products

The Seasonal Workload of Men on the Farm

Women’s Work on New England Farms

New England Agriculture Today

About the author:

George Christie’s first contact with commercial agriculture was as a summer field worker in the potato plots

at Cornell University, where he received a bachelors degree in entomology from the Agriculture and Life Sciences College. He received his masters in entomology at the University of California, Riverside, where he specialized in biological control of greenhouse leafmining flies. As a sole proprietor, he ran a mosquitocontrol business in Rhode Island for fifteen years, and was the lead author in revising the Massachusetts State Generic Environmental Impact Report for mosquito control. He created “Elementary Entomology,” a series of programs on insects, and gave over 200 programs at schools, libraries and other childrens’ venues before coming to SPNEA as the Casey Farm School and Youth Program Coordinator in 2000.


All natural processes are interactions. Agriculture, often thought of as something people do to nature, is a much more dynamic system than that. Weather patterns, soil type, and growing season are just three factors that nature imposes on the farmer. Add in the passage of significant periods of time, and the system becomes more complex still.

My goal is to distill the larger messages into a form useable in answering the simple questions. To do so I have divided the subject into a series of short essays, ranging from one to four pages in length. They can be read sequentially or by section, on an as-needed basis. The topics dealt with cover those areas about which I am most often asked questions as the education coordinator at Casey Farm in Saunderstown, R.I. For example, I have a section on gender roles, as people often ask about who did what jobs.

Obviously there is much more to know than can be presented here. A Long, Deep Furrow, by Howard S.

Russell, is perhaps the most complete overview of agriculture in New England from the 1600s to the early 1900s. Another excellent source on farms, farm building layouts and the seasonal workloads of men and women is Thomas Hubka’s Big House, Little House, Back House, Barn. Two good books which deal extensively with the change from Native American to European-based agriculture are Changes in the Land, by William Cronon, and Ecological Revolutions, by Carolyn Merchant. Cronon’s book emphasizes the fact that Native Americans were active shapers of the land, and that the landscape the Pilgrims sailed into was not a wilderness, but an actively, if very differently, managed world. Merchant pursues the topic further, delving into the philosophical differences between the twocultures, and their effects on the landscape. Another book I have just discovered is David Foster’s Thoreau’s Country. Foster provides a modern ecological framework for an extensive selection of statements and brief paragraphs taken from Henry David Thoreau’s journals, written between 1837 and 1862.

Native American Roots

Native American agriculture in southern New England had developed, by the time of the first contacts with Europeans, into a well-ordered system. Corn (maize) was the single most important food crop, accounting for some 65% of the diet (Merchant 1989, 75-76). Corn was planted in hills in clearings the Native Americans cut in the woods. Beans, squash, and pumpkins were planted with the corn. The bean vines climbed the corn stalks. The squash and pumpkin trailed along the ground, where their broad leaves blocked weed growth and their sharp spines may have deterred animals to some extent.

Farm work was almost exclusively women’s work. Men might help with the work of clearing a new field, and children performed various jobs, such as young boys assigned to scare away the crows.

Tobacco was the other main crop grown. It was generally cultivated by men, who were also the ones who smoked it. Additional crops were Jerusalem artichoke, strawberries and melons.

The agricultural system was a cyclical system found in many pre-industrial farming communities. Fields were cleared of their trees, which were burned on-site to provide phosphorus to the soil through their ashes, and crops planted. Fields remained in use for five-plus years when they were allowed to revert to woodland. In New England, where forests regenerate quickly, and top soil is thin (due to recent glaciation), such a system worked well.

Soil fertility could be extended in fields close to the shore, or along streams where anadromous fish (those that migrate from salt water to fresh to spawn) migrated, by using fish as fertilizer. This was a timeconsuming technique, made effective by the massive amount of fish available in the spring spawning runs.

In northern New England, agriculture was less well developed because the growing season was shorter.

Hunting and fishing, along with gathering wild berries and nuts, provided a larger proportion of the total diet.

To Improve the Land The dominant theme that runs through New England agriculture is “improvement.” The first colonists, whether they started at Plymouth, Providence, the Connecticut Valley, or along the Piscataqua River in Maine, saw heaven’s work before them, improving a land barely touched by the Native Americans.

Improvement, of course, meant recreating England, with its fields of wheat and barley, and its barnyards of cattle, sheep, hogs and geese.

Ironically, the farming practices of the Pilgrims and Colonials were exploitative rather than sustainable, and, by the early 1800s, much of the land was worn out. This led to a second wave of improvement, led by the agricultural press and a small but influential number of experimental farmers. These were buttressed by land grant colleges (started in the 1860s) and the extension system (starting early 1900s). The colleges researched agriculture and the extension service provided a link between researcher and farmer.

But science-based, economics-driven agriculture created its own set of problems. Farmers became overly dependent on chemical solutions to natural problems, fertilizers to rebuild depleted soils, pesticides for animal problems, herbicides for weeds. A second problem, highly magnified in New England, was the battle of land use, with large tracts of farm land being built over by factories, stores, and houses. The organic and sustainable agriculture movements have arisen in direct response to the problems of chemical use and land loss. Their philosophy centers on creating a sustainable system that works in alliance with nature, rather than seeking to subdue it to humanity’s will.

While the Sun Shines (Yale, 1991) is an excellent study of the effect of changing technology on haying in New England. Covering the time period 1789 - 1990, Yale takes the reader from scythe to haybine and baler. Though he only discusses haying, the changes mentioned for haying occurred in roughly the same order and time periods.

The Three Main Waves of Improvement in New England Agriculture

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The first Europeans to settle in New England found extensive “meadows” ready for planting. These meadows, however, were what remained of the farms of the Native Americans. In the Plymouth area, epidemics of measles or small pox had all but wiped out Native American populations, leaving their empty fields to be taken over by Europeans. This process continued throughout the 1600s, with warfare and disease reducing Native American populations in the areas adjacent to European settlement by approximately 95%, enabling the growing European population to expand.

Some definitions for various agricultural land uses Kitchen garden: Land used for mixed vegetable and herb growing for farm family consumption Included medicinal and ornamental plants Tillage: Land on which crops were grown for harvest Hay or mowing field: Land planted to hay or grains to be mowed and used for winter feed or sold for profit Pasture: Land used to graze livestock Fresh meadow: Land in native plants that could be mowed for hay or used as pasture Improved or English meadow: Land planted to English grasses or clovers to be mowed for hay or used as pasture Even as the cleared land filled with European farms, there was still plenty of land available for new farms.

But two factors limited the sizes of these farms: they needed to be cleared and there were few draft animals available for the work. Clearing therefore had to be done by human labor alone, and was a long, backbreaking process. Far from the neat fields of today, where up to 300 years of work has removed stump and stone, the early fields were studded with the stumps of trees, and filled with rocks too large to be removed by hand. The stumps were left to rot, though a large number of devices were invented to pull stumps from the field as time permitted, and the farmers just planted around the rocks.

As an example of farm size, an average farm in Gloucester, located in the northwest corner of Rhode Island, in 1778, had about 9 acres of meadow, 7 of pasture, and 3 to 4 planted to grain. Including the kitchen garden, house and buildings, the improved land of the farm was slightly over 20 acres (Jones 1992, 7-8).

This represented about one-third of the property, the rest being considered “undeveloped,” typically being a wood lot and/or swamp. A much larger analysis of 15 Massachusetts towns in 1771, by Carolyn Merchant (1989, 278), gives figures that are very similar, though tillage acreage is typically a bit higher. Although this does not sound like a large farm by modern standards (the World Book Encyclopedia gives average farm size in the United States in 1990 as 461 acres), it did represent the approximate size farm a single family, without significant hired labor, could maintain with the farming implements of the day.

Larger farms were found where conditions favored them. Along Long Island Sound, where the weather was milder and soils deeper, plantation-type farms came into being, with sizes of 200-plus acres being typical (Casey Farm in Rhode Island, is a perfect example of such a plantation). These farms used slaves, indentured servants, and hired help to work the land. Another variation was the Pettaquamscut purchase in 1657/58 in which the proprietors acquired approximately 65 square miles of land including most of what is today South Kingstown and the southern half of Narragansett, R.I., for the purpose of raising livestock, specifically horses, sheep and cattle (Romani 1995, 52 & 60).

More-open sections of Massachusetts also contained larger farms. Philemon Shepard was farming 127 acres in Sturbridge, Massachusetts, in 1827, and, “...remained a farmer of average land holdings and middle tax ranking.” (Baker and Paterson 1988, 101). Of note though was that Philemon’s brother also helped on the farm, and that the farm Philemon had received from his father in 1816 was sixty-three acres in size, again suggesting that it took roughly sixty-plus acres to support a farm family in comfort.

In most of the rest of New England it was rare for a farm to start large. Initial lot sizes in Providence (founded 1636), Portsmouth (1638) and Newport (1639) were between five and six acres (Carrier 1923, 190). Of course, substantial land was held in common for the community as a whole, but the small number of acres given to individual families is indicative of the amount of land it was assumed a family could improve at that time.

The community lands were used for grazing, and for lumber (persons could petition the town for the right to cut wood). But such lands were also used as dividends to be given to property owners who made an initial investment in the town. As an example Edward Richards purchased twelve acres in Dedham, Massachusetts, in 1639. As a proprietor of the town, he had significant civic responsibilities, including roadbuilding, militia duty and fence viewing, and received parcels of land in return for his investment and work.

By 1653, he owned over 55 acres, and ranked twelfth of 78 property owners in terms of the size of his holdings (Kane 1978, 23-24). Eventually the Richards’ family controlled several hundred acres of land, enough for Nathaniel Richards, Edward’s son, to give 80-acre farms to two sons while a third retained the central farm after he died. In addition, Nathaniel sold approximately 75 acres of land, using the family’s surplus property much as one would use a savings account today, as a means for raising cash when necessary (Kane 1978, 27).

Economic Factors in New England Agriculture

At first, farms throughout the region were designed to provide a comfortable life for an extended family.

Most years produced small surpluses for most farmers, and so the community as a whole grew steadily. A classic children’s book, Ox-cart Man, despite the silly idea that a farmer would walk ten days to market (a more-standard time frame would have been one night away from home (Cohen 1988, pp. 56-57)), does represent the small but steady gains a new England farm family would make in the course of a year. As. J.

Hector St. John de Crevecoeur stated in his Sketches of Eighteenth Century America, “Great parts of the profits of summer are expended in carrying a family through this wintry career—but let not that reflection diminish our happiness! We are robust, healthy, and strong:...” (1986, p. 239).

But the subsistence-to-comfort economy was connected to the larger world through trade. Furs and lumber are well-known early exports, but horses from Rhode Island and tobacco from Connecticut were other products exported early on. Beef and pork were raised to provision the sailing ships and cheese for the cities was an important product. Even within the local farming community economic inter-dependency was larger than the traditional image of the self-sufficient farmer might depict.

Some Examples of Reciprocity in New England Farm Communities Barn raising: Community members would gather to help raise barns and other buildings.

Oxen: Not every farmer owned a team of oxen and teams were routinely hired for plowing or for work where more than one team was needed. A lesser known fact is that not every farmer owned a plow, and would swap labor for the right to use a plow.

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