Agriculture: Overview

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Agriculture: Overview

Agriculture in the British colonies of North America consisted of a fusion between the plants and animals of Eurasia and Africa—cattle, sheep, pigs, goats, horses, wheat, oats, rye, barley, rice, okra, and sugar—and those first domesticated by American Indians, including, corn (maize), squash, beans, and tobacco. Farming differed by climate and region throughout the colonies and varied according to local politics, economy, and access to markets. Between the 1750s and the 1830s, eastern farmers and southern planters increasingly produced for markets, while those in the interior continued to depend on hunting and subsistence cultivation.

three types of agriculture

Three major forms of colonial agriculture existed by 1750: the diversified farm, the plantation, and the backwoods settlement. Northern farmers tended to practice a diversified agriculture in which they combined corn and rye with dairy stock. The cattle not only gave them milk for high-value products like butter but also manure, which they spread over their fields to replenish soil nutrients. Either the manure would be carted to fields in the spring or the animals would be allowed to dung the ground where they grazed. The New England farmstead included apple orchards for cider, a garden for vegetables, and outlying fields that were cultivated less intensively than those closer to the barn. Farmers in eighteenth-century Concord, Massachusetts, cultivated no more than twelve acres, depending on their needs and labor, with half or more of all the land they owned in either wild meadow or pasture sown with high-quality grasses. The town of Concord maintained broad common meadows that residents spent generations reclaiming from the Concord River. Most remote of all were the woodlands.

Plantations raised a principle commodity for sale in international markets and appeared throughout the southern states with products characteristic of their subregions: tobacco in Virginia and North Carolina; rice on the South Carolina and Georgia coasts; and by the 1790s cotton, which had begun to proliferate through the upcountry of South Carolina and Georgia. Plantations consisted of hundreds of acres of mostly forested land, with some having more than a thousand acres. Cultivated spaces varied by time, place, and available labor; they could be as large as three hundred acres. Planters needed such large holdings because they did little or nothing to restore the fertility of their soils. They shifted their cultivated acres though the forest in a process of burning and clearing (known later as swidden) that consumed vast areas. Where land could be purchased for little money by any white adult male, few people sold their labor. Planters imported African slaves to perform every task: clearing woodland for new planting, harvesting cotton and ginning it, and managing rice production. Planters shipped their cotton to market cities—New Orleans, Richmond, or New York—where merchants sold it to British and later American mills for fabrication into textiles.

A third form of settlement, mixing Finnish log-cabin construction with the hunting and swidden techniques of Delaware Indians, came together in the Lower Delaware River valley in the 1720s. It spread rapidly south and west. Backwoods settlers possessed few domesticated animals and favored squatting over land ownership. As farmers, they raised corn and hogs, thus combining two products that offered them great flexibility in changing conditions. Corn could be consumed directly or as hog flesh, in which form it could walk to market. It could also be converted into whiskey, a dense and valuable commodity able to withstand long-distance trade. In such a durable form, corn became visible to the state and taxable. In 1794 the poor farmers of Minco Creek in western Pennsylvania rebelled against an excise tax imposed by Congress on their stills. Agriculture always played a secondary role to hunting in the economy of the backwoods, but the two together created an astonishingly powerful complex of tools and strategies for wilderness living. Backwoods Americans settled more land more quickly than any other people in human history, pouring out of their hearths and into western Kentucky and Tennessee by the 1790s, Illinois by the 1820s, and Texas by the 1830s. A decade later they colonized the Willamette Valley in Oregon.

market revolution

In 1800 the combined population of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, along with the larger towns like Lancaster, Pennsylvania, amounted to no more than 200,000 people. The home market for agricultural commodities was so small that, beginning in the seventeenth century, northern farmers with access to the coast sent their surplus flour, pork, and butter to the English, French, and Dutch sugar islands in the Caribbean. Colonial farmers provisioned themselves, producing their own clothing, furnishings, and farm implements. Yet this world of self-sufficiency began to change after the Revolution, and within twenty years farmers near the growing cities had begun to sell surplus for export and consumption by others. Population density per square mile in the North increased from 14.7 in 1790 to 36.4 in 1830. Most agricultural exports tended to follow the trajectory of pork, ham, bacon, and lard. Considered as a single commodity, 15 million pounds of pork products shipped though American ports in 1811; the quantity spiked after the War of 1812 (1812–1815) and the resumption of trade with Great Britain; crashed after the Panic of 1819; and then began a sharp rise, reaching a level of 60 million pounds exported by 1845.

Hoping to boost the exports flowing through their warehouses, New York merchants convinced the legislature in 1817 to build the Erie Canal, connecting Buffalo on Lake Erie, the Genesee Valley, and the Finger Lakes to the port of New York. When it opened in 1825, the canal changed the patterns and products of agriculture. Farmers who once had lived too far from New York to think of a market connection could produce wheat for bakeries, fresh grapes and apples for street carts, or milk for neighborhood stores. The market revolution also set off a frenzy for new products, like merino sheep—a Spanish breed known for wool as fine as human hair. Farmers in Vermont and Massachusetts spent great sums on the sheep and dedicated vast acreage to them, looking forward to years of profitable sales as the number of textile factories increased.

In the South, cotton production spread following the invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney of New Haven, Connecticut, in 1793. Long-staple cotton had fibers that came away easily from the seed, but it could be grown only along the Carolina and Georgia coast—thus, it was termed "sea-island" cotton. Short staple could be grown on the uplands, but its fuzzy fibers clung to the seed, requiring time-consuming labor to separate them. The labor required to make short staple marketable prevented the diffusion of cotton throughout the interior until Whitney's gin changed the labor calculus. Production climbed from just over 3,000 bales of raw cotton in 1790, to 177,638 bales in 1810, to 731,452 in 1830. By the time the United States entered the Mexican War in 1846, it was producing 1.8 million bales of raw cotton a year.

soils and science

Constant cropping without soil restoration brought the agricultural lands of the eastern states nearly to ruin in some places by the 1790s. A generation of agricultural reformers worried that decline in the fertility of eastern soils would result in a redistribution of population to the western states and territories, amounting to a western shift in political power. Specifically, they disdained the common practice of planting crops year after year without soil restoration, by which they meant manure transferred from barns (where animals could be penned and their dung collected) to fields. Not all farmers and planters of the 1820s possessed the capital and the labor to undertake a full-scale restoration of their lands, and many suffered from the decline in commodity prices and demand following the Panic of 1819. They responded in two ways: by emigrating to unsettled lands in the West as a means of maintaining production by exploiting fresh soil, or by intensifying production as a way of yielding greater value from worn-out land. The motive for emigration could be read in the land-and-labor-relations of the plantation: slaves paid greater returns when they worked fertile rather than infertile land. Since slaves represented most of a planter's invested capital, they needed to be well employed all the time. That is why planters looked to Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, and eventually Texas.

The decline in southern soils after the Revolution and the consequent threat to population and thus to the political influence of the southern states brought forth some of the first and most politically motivated agrarian reformers of the nineteenth century. The Virginian John Taylor (1753–1824), author of a series of essays published as Arator (1813), warned that planters placed more than their profits in jeopardy when they failed to integrate grasses and cattle into their plantations, a system for creating manure; they threatened their economic and political independence. Another Virginian, Edmund Ruffin (1794–1865), dedicated most of his life to promoting marl—calcium carbonate in the form of decaying seashells found in extensive deposits throughout the Atlantic states of the South. When properly mixed into topsoil, marl reduced the acidity so common in damp and rainy climates, resulting in larger yields. Planters, however, no matter how often they decried their declining profits and the flow of households to the West, rarely dedicated labor or land to any form of restoration.

The system at the heart of "improved" husbandry consisted of an intensified form of English husbandry that emphasized rotation, special crops for feeding cattle (like turnips), high quality grasses (like timothy) planted in "leys" that became part of the general rotation, and winter penning in order to collect animal manure. Improved cultivation served the purpose of capitalist farmers because it allowed for constant production without fallow. Reformers spread their methods and the ethic of community and constancy through the rural press. Examples included The Cultivator (Albany, New York, edited by Jesse Buel), The Farmer's Register (Shellbanks, Virginia, edited by Edmund Ruffin), and The American Farmer (Baltimore, edited by John Stuart Skinner), as well as Soil of the South, The New England Farmer, The Farmer's Cabinet, and The Plough Boy (Albany, New York). Hundreds of farmer and planter associations formed in 1819 and throughout the following two decades, because the Panic of 1819 set off a depression that severely reduced the value of eastern farmland, inspiring planters and farmers to recover that value through improved methods of cultivation. Their published minutes functioned as scientific journals, reporting on the results of experiments.

Research into agricultural production centered on the two most important factors of production: land and labor. Americans read Humphry Davy's (1778–1829) Course of Lectures on Chemistry, published in 1802 and his Treatise on Soils and Manures (1818). The experiments of Sir John Lawes (1814–1900), also found a limited audience. No other theorist, however, received as much attention as Justus von Liebig (1803–1873), a German chemist whose "mineral theory" proposed that soils contained specific fertile elements—nitrogen, calcium, and phosphors—that could be added into chemical, or artificial, manures. In Organic Chemistry in Its Applications to Agriculture and Physiology (1840), Liebig offered a kind of knowledge that was obscure to most farmers, creating a field of agricultural chemistry that initiated the creation of a class of agricultural experts located in colleges and universities. Liebig's research also spurred the search for fertile elements and created a new industry—the farm input industry. Among the first products that linked soils chemistry and capitalist agriculture was guano, the dung of seabirds discovered on Pacific islands early in the nineteenth century. Guano came to American farmers in much the same way that synthetic fertilizers soon would, as a commercial product that replaced the manure they had long produced themselves from the resources of their own farms.

expansion into the 1830s

Cyrus McCormick (1809–1884) invented the first successful reaping machine in northern Virginia in 1831. It was the most notable of a generation of farm implements including binders, corn drills, rakes, and threshers intended to lower the cost of labor and allow farmers to cultivate larger units of land in the context of a rising capitalist market in all farm commodities. The reaper (though it did not become affordable or widely available until the 1850s) appealed to farmers because they paid high wages for labor in places where population density remained low. The reaper radically increased the number of acres a single person could harvest in one day, thus offering a powerful tool for transforming the prairies into farmland.

During Andrew Jackson's two terms in office (1829–1837), cotton planters moved into new regions, dispossessing Indians and expanding American influence in North America. Jackson initiated the forced removal of the southern tribes by decree in order to make that land available to slaveholders. Americans moved into the Mexican province of Tejas in the 1820s. Stephen F. Austin (1793–1836) received a grant from the Mexican government in the region of the Brazos River in January 1823. The colonists fought the Battle of Velasco against Mexico in June 1832, organized a constitutional convention in the following year, 1833, and won independence from Mexico in 1836—a classic example of how agrarian societies take over territories by force of population and reproduce their practices and landscapes, creating a new home ground.

See alsoChemistry; Cotton; Cotton Gin; Erie Canal; Farm Making; Foreign Investment and Trade; Frontier .


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Steven Stoll