The Farmscape Ecology Program * KYPP Nugget 13: January 22, 2011

KYPP Nugget: Hudson Valley Wheat History

Wheat yield and hessian fly

"Of Flies Canals, Dirt, Money and Wheat": Background & Exploration.

columbia county grain production historical

The wheat boom occurred at the far fringes of our window into local agricultural history. So far, we have been able to find almost no Columbia statistics on grain production prior to the first half of the nineteenth century. The above map of Columbia County is derived from the New York State Census of 1845, the first in which we have been able to find detailed information regarding the distribution of grain production in the County. However, by the time of that census, it is likely that wheat had largely fallen from favor. So, how do we know there even was a 'wheat boom'? Circumstantial evidence as a detective might say.

First, we do have a very few specific reports such as Alexander Coventry's Diary, a copy of which is available at the Columbia County Historical Society (together with many other interesting documents). Dating from the 1780s, his diary makes repeated reference to wheat growing around Claverack, although one cannot really be more precise than to say 'wheat was important'.

The 1680 reference to wheat production in the County comes from the Journal of Jasper Danckaerts, a missionary who journied up the Hudson in 1680. One of his stops was at Kinderhook, where he recorded,

"On returning to the boat, we saw that the woman-trader had sent a quantity of bluish wheat on board, which the skipper would not receive, or rather mix with the other wheat; but when she came she had it done, in which her dishonesty appeared, for when the skipper arrived at New York he could not deliver the wheat which was under hers".

(Interestingly, this issue of the quality of wheat being exported from the upper Hudson Valley was still important nearly 140 years later, when an article in The Plough Boy of 1819 berated regional farmers for their poor cleaning of the wheat they were sending to NYC.)
Alexander Anderson Preparing the Land
Preparing the ground. 19th century wood engraving by New Yorker Alexander Anderson. (Alexander Anderson, whose works have appeared in earlier nuggets, was active from about 1795 to 1865. He was based in New York City, and we don't know exactly when and where he created his farm images; they are available on-line at the New York Public Library)

Most of the rest of our pre-1800 references to wheat production are more geographically general, such as the reports of governors and officials on production in the Hudson Valley. Adriaen van der Donck who, in his 1655 A Description of New Netherland (for a new and annotated edition see here and for more on Dutch history in the Hudson Valley, visit the New Netherlands Institute) remarked on the great fertility and grain-growing potential of the Hudson Valley, "New Netherland is as fertile and fit for growing all kinds of grain as any part of the world thus far known to or possessed by Netherlanders".

Likewise, early English colonial records (see for example, the materials in A Documentary History of New York) abound with references to wheat exports and to the use of wheat as, essentially, a currency. As one governor put it in 1705, "as the case now stands, they [New York farmers] apply their land to Corn [i.e., grain] of all sorts, but chiefly wheat, because they have a certain market for that in the Islands [that is, the West Indies].” There are also export statistics from NYC, but there is relatively little information that lets us specify what was happening locally.

Alexander Anderson Sowing
Sowing seeds and a training session for early airborne crop dusting (just testing to see if anybody actually reads these captions!)

Our estimate of a late eighteenth century annual wheat production in the County of at least 190,000 bushels is derived largely from the interesting work of Martin Breugel, especially his Farm, Shop, Landing. He knows of no direct data from the County, but used wills and similar documents to estimate an average per capita consumption of wheat, and we used this, together with population data from the County, to estimate a minimum total production. We call it a "minimum" because such estimates would not include grain sold off farm, a value which we currently cannot estimate but may well have been substantial. If any of you know of grain production/processing/sale records from the mid-Hudson Valley for the 18th century or earlier, please let us know.

Alexander Anderson Harvesting
Harvesting, notice that both men and women are working here.

Information on yield (i.e., production amount/area sown) is likewise hard to come by for the early period. The figure at the top of the page is a summary of the data we have found so far. Not all of these values are from Columbia County. The graph below, while more cluttered, is an updated and annotated version of the yield graph, detailing where the data are from.

Columbia County Historical Wheat Yields
Wheat yield in and around Columbia County (click on image for larger version).

There are at least three different factors directly affecting these yields: 1) 'agricultural technology' (including tools and varieties available); 2) soil quality; and 3) disease and pests. These factors interact. For example, a poor wheat variety might grow weakly and thus be more susceptible to certain pests or diseases.

Given these considerations, it is difficult to know how the 11 bu/acre early Dutch report should be explained. Given that it is but a single report, it may have been a spatially or temporally local fluke or perhaps it is accountable for based on varieties or modes of growing.

What does seem clear is that yields around 20 bu/acre were relatively common in the mid-Hudson Valley in the 18th century, that yields then decreased until about the middle of the 19th century, and that numerous contemporary observers attributed the decline to soil exhaustion. As early as 1640, Adrean van der Donck was commenting on the lack of fertilization of grain fields. Such comments continued throughout the 18th century, and were increasingly joined by descriptions of the resulting soil decline. In 1774, for example, the governor of New York commented, "The soil [of the mid & lower Hudson Valley] in general is much thinner and lighter… having been longer under Culture and subject to bad Husbandry, is much more exhausted". The 1813 Gazetteer of the State of New York  by Horation Spafford (a some time farmer of Columbia County) has many references to improverished soils in the County.

Alexander Anderson Bring in Harvest
Bringing in the harvest.

While various commentators described this scenario and urged farmers to better manage their soil nutrients, it is perhaps most appropriate to quote Jesse Buel. Buel (1778 - 1839) was farmer, agronomist, politician and reformer who settled in Albany. He was instrumental in promoting agricultural improvement in New York State, especially through The Cultivator, an Albany-based agricultural newspaper that began publication in 1834 and gained widespread popularity. (Intriguingly, Buel apparently established an experimental farm in the Albany Pine Bush - it would be interesting to re-locate the land.) Commenting on trends in regional agriclture, In 1836, Jesse Buel summarized the state of wheat growing as follows (I quote him in length because of the contemporary respect he received and because of his panoramic vision):

"Although it is difficult to compare the average crops of different countries with any degree of accuracy, I will nevertheless endeavor to do it from the imperfect data to which I have had access …

Flanders is a flat, wet, and generally sandy country, illy adapted to the wheat crop. Yet the average over 25 bushels per acre. Lowe gives the average product of different districts, in this grain, according to Radcliff, varies from 20 1/2 to 32 bushels to the acre; mean average production in Scotland, of wheat 24 … bushels the acre. Loudon states the average product in Britain at 24, 29, and 32 bushels; mean average 26 bushels the acre. In 1790, Washington, in a letter to Arthur Young, computed the average crop in Pennsylvania, then one of our best wheat growing States, as follows:—Wheat 15 bushels... Strickland, in a report made to the British Board of Agriculture, forty years ago, gave the average wheat crop of our State at 12 bushels the acre, and of Dutchess, then, as now, our best cultivated county, at 16 bushels. An intelligent correspondent… expresses his doubts whether the average produce in Pennsylvania, with the exception of the potato crop, is as great as it was half a century ago. I am inclined to believe that in our State there has been a manifest improvement in that period; for, although some districts have retrograded, others have advanced with a good deal of celerity.— Well managed farms may be selected in the old river counties, where improvement has made the greatest advances, upon which the average crops have more than doubled during the last few years; where wheat has yielded an average crop of 25 to 30 bushels an acre… The maximum produce of our grain crops may be stated, wheat 40 bushels…Inthis estimate I leave out of view the fertile west, where nature has been profusely bountiful of her gifts, and where man seems to think the soil inexhaustible, and confine my remarks to the valley of the Hudson. These facts suffice to show, that while the condition of our husbandry is bad, it is susceptible of great improvement. What has been done in one district, or on one farm, may be done on others. And if we despair of the present generation to make the desired improvements, let us take care at least to qualify our sons to become better managers than their fathers"

Buel and other 'improvers' were not only concerned with the profitability of farms; they lived at a time when perhaps 80% of the national (and Columbia County) labor force were farmers and so directly obtained their welfare from the land. The "sustainability" of farming meant the sustainability of life for the independent farm family and hence for the majority of the population.

Alexander Anderson Gleaning
Gleaning? Although this image is untitled in the collection, it appears to show people gleaning grain from an already harvested field. Gleaning was apparently was one way that those without their own fields could collect at least some food stuff.
Finally, one can, in the literature of the time, find ample bemoaning of the Hessian Fly and other wheat plagues, and, at least in an immediate sense, these caused substantial trauma to the farmers. And yet, observers did not immediately attribute all of wheat's decline to one pest or another, but rather quickly included the influence of poor soils. As one writer pointed out, some of the most dramatic declines in production during this period occured in Virginia, where many of the Northeastern wheat pests and plagues were scarce but where there was major soil depletion.

Alexander Anderson Threshing
Preparing the grain for the mill. The men at center are threshing (removing the seeds from the stalks), while the two smaller figures at right appear to be filling sacks beside a mechanical winnower (winnowing separates the grain seed itself from the thin husk that clothes it) .

Asa Fitch, the New York State entomologist referred to in the article, put "rich soils" at the head of his 1846 (Trans. of the New York State Agricultural Society, v. 6, pp. 357-358) list of remedies and ties the Fly's ravages directly to soil exhaustion, while also outlining a holistic approach to pest management that rings true today,

"An effectual remedy" against the Hessian fly, which has been so much inquired after and talked about, ... never has been and probably never will be discovered. In truth, we regard the idea that a remedy of this character exists, as being equally absurd with a belief in the philosopher's stone. There is probably no such thing as sure and infallible specifics against any of the insects which invade our crops, any more than there is against those diseases which attack our persons. ..There is no remedy with which we can 'doctor' it away—no charm with which we can say to it, " vanish presto;" yet there are measures, which employed, will guaranty fair crops.. We shall hence proceed to review them [i.e., the measures] in detail, treating first of those, which, after a careful consideration of this topic, we regard as the most important.

1. A rich soil.—This is a safeguard which has been strongly urged by almost every one who has written upon this insect. Indeed an inspection of different fields of wheat in a district where this enemy is present, cannot fail to impress upon the observer the utility and importance of this requisite. Other things being equal, the crops on impoverished lands invariably suffer the most. ... Indeed, the farmers themselves, in districts where the fly has prevailed, have all learned from experience, that it is only upon fertile lands that it will do to sow their wheat. Hence Ezra L'Hommedieu long ago intimated that the Hessian fly on Long Island, by driving tbe farmers to manure their lands, instead of a curse had actually been a blessing. He says, "the land in Suffolk county and other parts of Long Island, was easily tilled, and by continual cropping with wheat was so reduced, that on an average not more than five or six bushels was raised to the acre. This mode of husbandry was still pursued, and although the land was gradually impoverished, the farmer found the crop, although small, more than would pay for his labor and expense. The Hessian fly put an end to this kind of husbandry, and in that respect has proved a blessing instead of a curse; no other way being found to prevent the injury done by this insect, but by highly manuring the land." ... It is doubtless the additional strength and vigor enjoyed by plants growing upon a rich soil, which enables them to withstand the depredations of this insect. ..Hence a rich soil enables a plant to elaborate a sufficient amount of fluids for its own sustenance, in addition to that which is abstracted from it by a few of these insects. We therefore regard this as a primary and indispensable measure, and one which must accompany others...

Alexander Anderson Dunging
Redistributing the agronomic wealth. These two men are spreading manure.

The tale of soil regeneration is not one of simple reconstruction following the realization of errors at the end of the 17th and beginning of the 19th centuries. While there seem to have been profound improvements in soil quality during the first half of the 19th century and while much of those improvements can probably be attributed to more conscious consideration of soil management through rotation, selection of cover crops, and the use of manures, this period also saw the transition to greater use of off-farm nutrients such as sea bird guano (bird droppings). As Stoll (see below) suggests, the use of these off-farm natural fertilizers may have paved the psychological way for the subsequent use of the synthetic fertilizers that soon appeared. Ineed, the growing exploration of soil chemistry, spurred on by some of these same concerns over soil depletion, eventually resulted in the incorporation of synthetic fertilizers into the agricultural system.

While there is no doubt that synthetic fertilizers can produce immediate increases in crop yields, over-reliance on such fertilizers has sometimes led farmers to again abandon the precepts of good soil managment that the Romans understood (albeit may have often ignored), that the 15th and 16th century British (amongst others) reiterated, that North American colonists forgot, and that Buel and colleagues 'rediscovered'. One way of describing Biodynamics, the organic movement, and other similar, more modern initiatives is to say that they are yet another renaissance of sustainable soil management necessitated by the apparent, widespread neglect of soil health and overall farm sustainability.

For a very readable account of the history of soil use, see Dirt by David R. Montgomery. For a more specific (yet still fun) consideration of 19th century US soil management, see Steven Stoll's Larding the Lean Earth.
Of Flies, Canals, Dirt, Money and Wheat

by Conrad Vispo

     The Hessians weren’t really to blame for the downfall of Northeastern wheat growing in the late 18th century, but they were convenient scapegoats. Widely despised as mercenaries fighting for the British during the American Revolution, their name was easily transferred to a small fly that began to ravage wheat crops shortly after that war.  Reality was more complex: Most Hessians weren’t mercenaries in the modern sense of the word (instead they were conscripted soldier hired out by their government), and the evidence that they were agents of the fly’s introduction seems mixed. Whatever its origins, the so-called “Hessian Fly” was a scourge, and together with a variety of other plagues including the wheat midge and wheat blast, it soon discouraged major wheat production in the Hudson Valley.
     Wheat was an important crop in our region during the 17th and 18th centuries. Adrian van der Donck, who resided in the Hudson Valley during the 1640s, sang the Valley’s praises as a wheat growing region. In 1680, there are reports of wheat being sent by boat to NYC, and two years earlier, the governor of New York reported that 60,000 bushels were being exported annually from the City. By the mid 1700s, officials describing agriculture along the Hudson called wheat “the staple” of production and the “main bent” of most farmers. Aside from being consumed locally, there was a strong market for wheat in the West Indies, to where much NY wheat was sent in exchange for rum, sugar, molasses, and sometimes slaves. During this era, documents from Albany County (which then included Columbia County) often describe payments based on the interchangeable currencies of beaver pelts, wampum and wheat. Indeed, much of the rent paid by tenants of the Livingston Manor was in wheat. By 1789, New York was exporting roughly 1,000,000 bushels of wheat per year. Alexander Coventry, while farming near Hudson in the late 1700s, recorded numerous wheat transactions in his diary and frequently commented on the quality of the wheat grown on various lands he visited; clearly, wheat was on the mind of him and his contemporaries.

     We estimate that Columbia County may have been producing at least 190,000 bushels of wheat at the end of the 18th century.  Fifty years later wheat production in Columbia County was less than 9,000 bushels, and wheat was an unimportant crop throughout most of the Hudson Valley. Why?

     Pests and disease were not the only troubles for wheat as the 19th century began. To some degree, they may have been the symptoms of a deeper problem – tired soil. By 1800, some fields of Columbia County had been under constant cultivation for nearly 150 years. Growing plants remove nutrients from the soil and, when those plants are harvested and borne elsewhere, they take nutrients with them. To a certain degree, plants, powered as they are by sunshine, can derive new nutrients from the minerals in the soil and from the air around them, but such nutrient income to the soil rarely offsets the nutrient costs of repeated harvests. In the late 1700s, yields of grains were falling (see graph), and the weaker plants were likely more susceptible to pests and disease. Indeed, New York’s first state entomologist put proper soil care at the heart of any response to the Hessian Fly. Hudson Valley farmers did eventually respond to widespread soil exhaustion through a combination of improved management (such as, crop rotations, use of legumes, incorporation of manure) and increased nutrient inputs (for example, natural fertilizers such as guano, marl, and buffalo bone meal and, subsequently, synthetic fertilizers). But, by that time, producing wheat was no longer the center of the problem, selling it was.

     Farmers had been going through an economic transition as the focus of their farming shifted from growing their own sustenance to being a source of that newly elevated form of livelihood - money. Until the first decades of the 19th century, the main purpose of most farms in our region was probably to produce food for the farm family. As a result, many farms produced a little of everything. Commerce of a planned surplus surely occurred and was important in providing the farm household with items that it didn’t produce itself, but that came on top of, rather than instead of, producing for the home. By the mid-19th century, however, most farmers seem to have been planning their farming based upon off-farm markets rather than their own kitchen table, and changes in those markets made wheat outmoded for Hudson Valley farmers by 1850.

     The Erie Canal linking western New York to the Hudson opened in 1826 and was soon transporting wheat. In 1837, the canal bore 500,000 bushels of wheat; by 1841, it was carrying around 1,000,000 bushels, together with hundreds of thousands of barrels of flour. Thirty years later, New York canals were delivering some 71,000,000 bushels of wheat and flour. But by then a newcomer, railroads, had already stolen the show: railroads delivered nearly 300,000,000 bushels of wheat and flour to Atlantic ports (not just from New York State) during the same year. The deep, fresh soils of western New York could produce more wheat for less money than could the Hudson Valley’s older, thinner lands. So, farmers here looked to other crops for which their location gave them a relative advantage. Hay (whose bulk made it relatively expensive to transport long distances), rye (better suited to our soils and clime and in demand by local rye-paper factories and NYC horse keepers), together with fruits and dairy (both of which might go bad during shipment from farther west) became prime crops.

     In retrospect, while the Hessian Fly and other pestilence no doubt saddened and frustrated many farmers, they may have also been a useful, anticipatory spur for agricultural change that economic conditions were soon going to demand. From our distance, the name “Hessian” seems almost quaint, tainted by little of the bitter animosity in which it no doubt originated. Likewise, through the long lens of time, the havoc it wrought seems less black and white. Because of it, farmers were already searching for alternative crops when rapidly developing modes and routes of transport began outdating the previous model of agricultural economics. Today, as the rising cost of fossil fuels and the recognition of their possible environmental effects pressure us to shrink transportation distances, we may begin to look at recent agricultural challenges as the bittersweet ‘Hessian Fly’ that, while truly painful, may also be preparing our agricultural landscape for the next sea change brought on by the broader economic context, a change that may include renewed regional wheat growing.