11 April 2011

What Can Be Done on One Acre of Ground

"The editor of the Maine Cultivator published, in his useful paper, his management of one acre of ground, from which we gather the following results: One third of an acre, in corn, usually produced thirty bushels of sound corn for grinding, besides some refuse. This quantity is sufficient for family use, and for fattening one large or two small hogs. From the same ground he produced two or three hundred pumpkins, and his family supply of dry beans. From a bed of six rods square, he usually obtained 60 bushels of onions; these he sold at $1 per bushel, and the amount purchased his flour. Thus, from one third of an acre and an onion bed, he obtained his breadstuffs. The rest of the ground was appropriated to all sorts of vegetables for summer and winter use; potatoes, beets, parsnips, cabbage, green corn, peas, beans, cucumbers, melons, squashes, etc., with fifty or sixty bushels of beets and carrots for the winter food of a cow. Then he had also a flower garden, raspberries, currants, and gooseberries, in great variety, and a few choice apple, pear, plum, cherry, peach, and quince trees.

Some reader may call the above a “Yankee trick;” so it is, and our object in publishing it is, to have it repeated all over Yankee land, and everywhere else. If a family can be supported from one acre in Maine, the same can be done in every state and county in the Union."


I am particularly fond of this old almanac excerpt because it promotes and celebrates the idea of food self-reliance on a small section of land (an objective that my family has achieved to a small degree, and hope to do to a greater degree). Such self-reliance was common and widespread for the first 150+ years of American settlement, when we were limited to being an agrarian colony of England (large industry and manufacturing was simply not allowed in America back then).

All of that changed, however, after the Revolutionary War. Independence from the mother country left America free to pursue the fruits of industrialism.

By 1851, when the above excerpt was published, there were numerous large mills and factories in the New England states. Many people had left farm life to work in these factories. But industrial prosperity proved to be a mixed basket of fruit because it brought a series of economic booms and busts. If you have left the life of subsistence homesteading or farming to work in a mill town or city, and the economy crashes, and you lose your job, you are in a bad situation

The boom & bust cycle repeated itself throughout the 19th century and many people, separated from the security of the land, suffered as a result. In time, I will be posting some Farmer’s Calendar excerpts that allude to such suffering.

I should make it clear that in 1851 the majority of New Englanders were still farmers of one sort or another and self reliant to a great degree. An agrarian culture yet prevailed, but the handwriting was on the wall—Agrarian Nation was slowly but surely becoming Industrial Nation.

As this transition from less individual dependence on the land to greater individual dependence on the industrial providers played itself out over the generations, the periodic economic crashes led to what we today would call “back to the land movements.” These movements were, at root, a return to the sanity and fundamental wisdom of people growing their own food and providing for their own basic needs from the land. That is, I surmise, what prompted the almanac editor to publish the short essay above.

All of this is, of course, pertinent to today and incredibly poignant when you consider that, more than ever before in the history of America, we have a population of people removed from the land and unable to provide for their food needs. Such people are, in  many respects, helpless dependents on the industrial system. It is not a healthy for a nation, or so it seems to me. End of editorial.

For those of you who have trouble visualizing how big an acre is, picture a football field. An acre of land is roughly equivalent to the size of a football field, less the end zones. To be more exact, subtract 27.5 feet from the length of the field and you have yourself an acre.

It might be a good idea to find a football field, climb up to the top seat of the bleachers, and study that area, imagining (after what you have read above) all that could be done in that space.

Then, while you're imagining, consider how much time and work it would take to raise all that food yourself. And, beyond that, would you be satisfied with such a simple diet? I dare say, if more people did work that hard, and more people did eat such wholesome, basic, homegrown foods, more people would be healthier than they now are and probably much more satisfied with themselves. What do you think?

A final observation: I believe the "Yankee trick" comment probably alludes to growing tensions between the North and South during this period in history. Ten years after this excerpt was published (1861), the Civil War began. 

Michael Bunker, in his book, Surviving Off Off-Grid (see sidebar) refers to the Civil War as the War Against Southern Agrarianism. That is, I believe, an accurate description. But I would like to point out that the farmers of the Northern states, and the traditional agrarian way of life in those states were also victims of the Northern industrial powers.


In the next installment of Agrarian Nation, we will take a look at Farmer's Calendar excerpts for the month of April for the years 1840, 1849, 1850, and 1851.

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Anonymous said...

Answer or best guess, if you will. How did an 1851 farmer in Maine grow onions each year? Is there a type of onion with a short enough season to grow from saved seed to market size in that zone?

W said...

We grow Ailsa Craig onions year after year. Our season is about 120 days, enough time to get a good crop if you pre-start them. Some you over-winter in the basement or root cellar (keep from freezing) and replant the following year. Those go to seed and provide your seed for the following year. And the cycle repeats.

Herrick Kimball said...

I've never grown a garden in Maine but Eliot Coleman, author of The New Organic Grower (and other gardening books) lives in Maine and grows onions. I think he recommends some different varieties in his book.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Kimball, thank you for the book recommendation. I will check it out.

W, what do you refer to when you say "if you pre-start them." I assume that, at best, an 1851 farmer's seed starting would be in a glass greenhouse, glass covered cold frame or hotbed, or a kitchen windowsill. No electric fluorescent lights or cheap fuel for a furnace.

The Midland Agrarian said...

Beyond the fact that war is the coffin nail in all agrarian republics, I would respectfully disagree with Mr Bunker about the war against "southern agrarianism". In at least the lowland south, agriculture was a lot closer to modern industrial farming (slaves were the equivalent of machines to raise a few cash crops for sale in foreign markets).

Southern Unionist WJ Grayson wrote on how he saw cash cropping cotton destroy household economy at the time. "The farmer curtails and neglects all other crops. He buys from distant places not only the simplest manufactured articles but farm products, grain, meat, ham, butter, all of which he could make at home".

Victor Davis Hanson has also written that the midwest agrarians formed the heart of the army that wrecked the southern commercial plantation system.

Herrick Kimball said...

Midland Agrarian—

That's some good perspective that you have there, and I'll do some Google searching because I'd like to know more about WJ Grayson.

Western farming sure did have a profound impact on the rest of the nation and farming everywhere. It may not be pertinent to this subject but I was surprised to learn recently that Cyrus McCormick, he of the revolutionary reaper fame, was originally from Virginia and that's where he developed his early reapers. There was not much interest for them in the South but the Western prairie farms wanted them. So he moved his operation to Chicago, and the rest is history.

The Midland Agrarian said...

Hi Herrick,
William J Grayson was a South Carolinian, strong supporter of slavery, and opponent of "hireling industrialism". He also had no use for secession. He just saw that commercial farming was not agrarianism. He is interesting person to learn about.

Your comment about Western Farming is also pertinent to understanding the effect of the war. I think the reapers were needed to replace manpower during the war because the young men were all in the huge Union army and needed fed. The surpluses the reapers created helped speed the decline of smaller New England farms where fields were too small to make the machines affordable.

BTW-John Deere did later make a pull type combine with a 4 foot sickle bar for the New England Market. I wish someone would bring them back.

Your Friend,
Richard Grossman