From Farm to Market
From Farm to Market
The Market Economy. “Wealth,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “by bringing things from where they abound to where they are wanted,” gave the farmer’s peaches “a new look and a hundredfold value over the fruit which grew on the same bough and lies fulsomely on the ground.” Most farmers in the 1815–1850 era would have agreed with Emerson, if in less florid style. They planted their fields and raised their livestock with the needs of the market in mind. Although many (especially those living far from markets) clung to the Jeffersonian ideal of self-sufficiency and planned to sell locally only whatever surplus remained after filling their families’ needs, most American farmers entered the new national market economy eagerly. Improved transportation networks made marketing farm goods economical while also bringing to the farmer’s attention a new array of compelling items ready for cash purchase, from factory-made shoes to cookstoves. By 1850 even the most recalcitrant antimarket farmers knew that there were consumer goods they could obtain only by raising a cash crop.
On the Hoof. In an era before good roads and railroads, the easiest way for a farmer to transport his surplus to market was to have it walk there, in the form of livestock. In the 1810s and 1820s carrying grain (even expensive wheat) overland in wagons to the nearest market was too costly to be practical. Bad roads ruined wagons, and both draft animals and farmers needed constant feeding and shelter. It was far easier to use the grain to fatten livestock and have the animals driven to market. Thus in the early 1820s annual hog drives from the trans-Appalachian West to the East Coast became commonplace. Travelers on the National Road “met continually droves of hogs, often 600 together, being driven, usually from Ohio and even Indiana, to Baltimore.” Cattle and even turkeys were herded over the same route. Stock buyers regularly fanned out into rural areas and bought up livestock, then combined the lots into herds led by professional drovers. Some of this livestock bordered on the feral, and western pigs were especially notorious for their wildness. On the frontier, in fact, pigs often ran wild in the woods during most of the year, feeding on acorns and small mammals while developing mean temperaments to ward off wolves and bears. Farmers had to tempt these animals into fenced cornfields, where they could be held until time for the drive. In these gathering pens boys drove the pigs with sticks to reac-quaint them with human control, occasionally sewing shut the eyes of the most stubborn animals to keep them from attacking or running away. By the 1830s, with forests in rapid decline, farmers began to pen their hogs throughout the year and drive them in the off-season to the new pork-processing centers at Cincinnati or Chicago.
Porkopolis. Without refrigeration, pork butchering and packing was a winter occupation. From November until at least February, the packinghouses of Cincinnati
and other Midewestern river cities such as Terre Haute, Indiana, hummed with activity. In the cold of tall buildings along the Ohio River seasonal workers (many being farmers earnings extra money in the off-season) manned their posts on the “disassembly line”, where, in the words of historiam R. Carlyle Buley, “the mallet, - the knife, —the axe, —the boiling caldron” and the “remorseless scraping iron” converted the “fated porker, that was but one minute before grunting in the full enjoyment of bristling hoghood” into “mess, prime, or cargo” porkawash in a sea of brine and salt, and finally packed into giant barrels ready for the long spring journey downriver by steamboat and flatboat to the markets of the cotton South, the urban East, or even Europe. Cincinnati won the nickname of “Porkopolis” for its predominance in the trade, a position not surrendered until the coming of the railroad shifted the center of pork packing to Chicago later labeled the “hog-butcher for the world” by poet Carl Sandburg.
Northeastern Markets. For Western farmers with surpluses not “on the hoof” it cost roughly a hundered dollars in the precanal era to transport one ton of goods overland from the Great Lakes to New York City, and Midwestern farmers grew hardly anything worth more than a hundred dollars a ton. Until the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 most of the wheat flour, corn, and beef consumed in or exported from New York came from within 150 miles of the city. Even after the opening of canals and railroads brought down the price of Western wheat, corn, and cattle, Northeastern farmers could still rely on a superior system of turnpikes, canals, and railroads linking them with expanding urban markets in Boston and Philadelphia, facilitationg extensive market, or “truck” farming in New York. Eastern urban markets for oysters, wild game, orchard fruits, fresh vegetables, and dairy products allowed many worn-out New England farms to survive competition with the West. By the early 1850s oysters alone represented a $5 million dollar market in New York City, and six steamboats of peaches arrived daily (in season) from Middlesex Country, New Jersey. This trade with the city’s hinterland made New York’s Fulton Market a veritable cornucopia in 1850, stacked with fruits, vegetables, and cheeses from farms throughout the East.
Country Stores. Cities such as Richmond, Charleston, New Orleans, Saint Louis, and Cincinnati also offered nearby farmers thriving produces markets, although not on the scale of the New York market. For most farmers, however, the local general store was the main outpost of the world economy. In hundreds of these stores across the country farmers exchanged their livestock and produce for the products of Pittsburgh iron foundries, British and American textile firms, and New England clock, ax, gun, shoe, and watch factories. The storekeeper was an important, if not necessarily popular, figure, for he served as the primary buyer of farm goods and supplier of manufactured items as well as a major source of credit. Some were sharp dealers; for every “Honest Abe” Lincoln, who briefly kept a store in New Salem, Illinois, there was a P.T. Barnum, who recalled of his storekeeping days that “we cheated the customers with our goods. Each party expected to the cheated, if it was possible.” Honest or not, storekeepers earned position at the center of the economy by assuming the risks of the market. It was up to store the produce they accepted from farmers and transport it to a large market, a process that could take months, with prices fluctuating all the while. Guessing wrong about the price that corn, pork, or potatoes might command in Ney Orleans or New York could prove costly. In the spring of 1844, for example, Iowa merchant John Burrows heard that potatoes were going for two dollars a bushel in New Orleans, but by the time he got there with a flatboat full of spuds, the price had fallen to only eight cents a bushel.
Chicago . When canals and railroads began to penetrate the West, farmers no longer had to take their produce south by flatboat or submit to the monopoly power of the local storekeeper. They could make instead the relatively easy journey by wagon to the nearest port or rail connection and sell their goods there. Once the railroad came to the tiny a thousands residents in 1830, farmers came from all over with sacks of grain and barrels of pork to sell at what had become the western terminus of the New York to Great Lakes trading network. In the town’s open-air market, cash or commission merchants inspected the farmers’ grain right from the sack, grading it based on its type and quality. They offered prices, based on the grade of the grain and the prevailing prices in Buffalo, New York City, or London. The merchant’s superior knowledge of endpoint prices as well as transport and insurance costs gave him the advantage in bargaining and limited the farmer’s room for maneuver. Once the deal was made, farmers usually took their cash (or the merchant’s receipt) and visited one of Chicago’s three hundred stores to stock up on supplies before heading home.
William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York: Norton, 1991);
Paul Wallance Gates, The Farmer’s Frontier: 1815–1860 (New York;Holt, 1960).