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A Science of Agriculture

A Science of Agriculture


A Growing Discipline. Only about 10 percent of the American population lived in towns or cities during this

period; the rest lived and worked on farms. Agriculture was by far the primary American employment, but it was in dire need of improvement. Whether the crop was for export, like tobacco, or for home consumption, like corn, American farmers tended to work the same land over and over again until it was exhausted and then clear new lands. In England, where farmers did not have extensive land to use in the American manner, gentleman farmers experimented with techniques for getting the most out of their land for as long as possible: crop rotation, soil enhancement by fertilizing, more efficient use of cattle, and employing new and better farming implements. They discovered that agriculture could benefit a great deal from more scientific farming methods.

American Application. Some informed Americans advocated the new techniques in the colonies. In 1758 the American Magazine suggested that townspeople form companies or societies to discuss agricultural improvement and to make new experiments. Unfortunately little was done to introduce English practices in America. Some newspapers advertised new implements and marl (calcium-rich clay for enhancing depleted soil) and instructions on its use. Enthusiasts tried out new plow designs and seed drills, and a few put their minds to designing harvesting and threshing machines to improve production. Even so, the practices of everyday farmers were not much affected. Part of the problem was that English practices could not always apply to colonial conditions: America had a wide range of different soils, and its thousand-mile Atlantic coastline comprised several climates. Jared Eliots Essays on Field Husbandry, published in 1760 and based on his own experiments in Killmg-worth, Connecticut, was a serious attempt to modify English techniques to American climate, but he was the only colonial to write extensively on the subject of agricultural improvement. Perhaps the main reason for Americas slow progress in this regard was its persistent problem with labor. Many of the new practices required more hands to make them productive, and the cost of labor in America-free, indentured, or slave-had always been high. Many planters did not see the point to harvesting and threshing more grain if they could not afford to clear, plant, and cultivate the additional land required. As late as 1775 one author still saw wasteful practices everywhere and argued for an American association, on the model of the American Philosophical Society, dedicated to encouraging agricultural improvement. Such a society might settle a plan of operations, which would, in a few years, by means of an annual subscription...alter the face of things. They might reduce these doubtful points to a certainty; they might introduce a better system of rural economy and be in a few years of infinite service to their country. However, no such effort was made, and only a relative few experimented seriously with scientific agriculture: well-to-do planters such as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington in Virginia, William Allen in Pennsylvania, and Benjamin Gale in Connecticut. Wherever land remained plentiful and labor dear, the great majority of Americans had few inducements to explore the science of agriculture.


Brooke Hindle, The Pursuit of Science in Revolutionary Africa 1735-1789 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1956).

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