“I wonder how I can mess this all up for my kids and grandchildren?” said no farmer ever when looking over his land. Yet for a good 200 years the narrative of American agriculture would seem to imply that is exactly what colonial American farmers and planters had in mind.
“[W]orking the same piece of land year after year, til it was totally exhausted; after this it was left neglected.” So commented Isaac Weld in 1795 on what he believed was the “ruinous system” of staple crop agriculture in the tidewater. Colonists swarmed the land, consumed every resource, and when those resources dried up they moved on to consume more land. That had been the reason given for a mass exodus of young men and their males slaves to the Ohio country in the early 1770s right here in Prince George’s county. It seems plausible enough, but the question is really, was it possible?
Think about it for a moment: if colonial farmers were truly that ravenous, then how exactly did they survive the first few years, much less over 100 years? These were people who gardened organically (by default since chemical fertilizers and pesticides hadn’t been invented yet) and not only did they survive, but their length of years improved! What was going on exactly? A nice place to start is by looking at what they actually did do to the land.
English people came here in the 17th century to live English lives in this new world, to tame it, impose their will upon it, and the new world punched them in the mouth. Massive trees with massive root systems made using the plow impossible, and if an Englishman can’t plow he doesn’t quite know where to start. Arriving smack in the middle of the worst drought in 800 years didn’t help matters either. Ironically, it was the native peoples who showed them how to make a go of it by planting not in nicely furrowed rows but hills. If you can’t plant “in” the ground, then plant “above” the ground. Thus began the era of “hill culture” that lasted until after the revolutionary war and the introduction of Jefferson’s moldboard plow.
It took the English a while to fully embrace the idea. No longer was it about the amount of land one had to farm, but rather the number of hills that one could work. By the last quarter of the 18th century, the average planter was expected to tend to 3 acres in tobacco and 2 to three acres of corn, and they did this with a hoe. You may have 200 acres of land, but if it’s just you then 5 to 6 acres is all you’re going to have in production at any one time. What happened to the rest of the land? It was left fallow—untouched. Colonial people were familiar with crop rotation and they practiced that here; rotating tobacco in a field for 3 years, corn for 2, then maybe wheat for a year. After this rotation, the field was left fallow for 20 to 25 years. While this may seem a long time, it did not matter as long as you had at least 50 acres, which insured that every 5 years you could move your fields while allowing the previous acreage to replenish on its own. That is probably one of the most straightforward examples of “sustainability” one could present.
But what about all those accounts of how bad the agriculture was like, Isaac Weld? I’m sure to him it was bad farming. He had just moved here from England, and was wealthy enough to understand what was going on in England agriculturally at the time. The British Agricultural Revolution began in 1701; the high points of which included:
- 1701 – Jethro Tull perfects the seed drill that plants a seed at the right depth at the right time almost perfectly. Without the waste inherent in hand broadcasting seed and bird predation crop yields are dramatically improved and without extensive plowing there was reduced soil loss due to erosion.
- 1730 – Robert “Turnip” Townsend introduced the four field crop rotation to England with clover and turnips put in the mix. In the 17th century one followed the three field rotation of wheat, rye and oats followed by a few years left fallow. With Townsend’s introduction of clover and turnips there was no need for fallowing anymore since clover fixes nitrogen back into the soil. In 1705 England exported 11.5 million quarters of wheat and by 1765 it rose to 99.5 million.
- 1750s – Robert Bakewell improved breeds of cattle and sheep through selective breeding and by 1786 the average weight of a bull before slaughter had risen from 370 pounds to 840 pounds.
All of this brought great changes to England, and the quality of life generally improved so much so that any Englishman moving here would have been appalled by what he saw Tidewater Potomac planters doing. Of course it was ruinous! Compared to the remarkable and glorious improvements going on elsewhere, this backwards way of farming was downright insulting (to folks like Issac Weld). But that didn’t mean that what the colonists were doing with the land unsustainable. It was working just fine for them. They had managed a system of agriculture that was contingent on a well managed use of the land, and one that didn’t suffer fools kindly. Their gardens lacked many vegetables simply because the effort involved in maintaining them just was not practical, therefore not sustainable—I’m looking at you asparagus and celery!
Don’t get me wrong, I am not an apologist for colonial planters. However, we beg the question, “Was their form of agriculture sustainable?” Slavery makes the answer an unequivocal no. Sorry. Just no. I think a better way of looking at their practices is not in terms of “sustainable” (because what may be sustainable to you, might not be to someone or somewhere else; I mean, do you have problems with crop raiding baboons like Uganda?) but rather in terms of land “connection”. Whether they used verbose language or took a more practical view, colonists had to be deeply connected to their land. It was the only real means to provide for their future and that of their offspring. If one looks at land advertisements from the Virginia Gazette for the 18th century you will find a total of 72 nouns and verbs devoted to agricultural practices. They differentiated soil with 27 distinct terms like pignut, mulatto, stiff, and light. There were 18 for variations in terrain and 37 nouns and 23 adjectives describing the properties of the surrounding water. How does your tap water taste?
Ultimately the colonists failed where the native people always seemed to succeed, and they did so as victims of their success. There were never more native people than the land could support; they moved when they had to. The colonists idea of literally setting down roots meant that eventually there wouldn’t be any more land to farm. Those young men who left Prince George’s county in the early 1770s did so not because the land was ruined, but because there was no more land left to farm. If you have 50 acres and I have 100 acres and they have 500 acres, then at some point you’re going to literally run out of land. That 50 acre minimum, so necessary to a “sustainable” farm, failed to come through when the price of land doubled from 10 to 20 shilling per acre from 1750 to 1775, and more than one son was around to inherit. “Sorry son, I only have 40 acres I can give you and there isn’t any land left to buy.”
So there it is folks; a look at colonial “sustainability” as it were, and of course, there are always different angles and points of view one can take. But for those of us who work in the past and are charged with presenting the past, we try and get as close as we can to their way of thinking and see how that changes the way we view things now. Good thing we don’t have to argue anymore about land, farming, food, how it’s grown or where or how much of it we should eat…