The Farmscape Ecology Program * KYPP Nugget #17:2 May 2011
[Updated June 2014]

KYPP Nugget: Land as Wealth

This week in the Columbia Paper: "Spring Flowers"
Claudia Knab-Vispo will introduce you to some of the bloomin' greenery currently enlivening our landscape

Land as Wealth: Background & Exploration

[UPDATED 1 June 2014]

Acknowledgements first: none of these ideas are original to me - farmers, like Mike Scannell and Willie Denner, and historians, like Brian Donahue, have helped me put these pieces together. Apologies to them if I mangle their ideas.

Beebe Hill State Forest, located on the northern edge of Austerlitz, is now a largely wooded landscape (see location map). Our regular hike route (below) passes by a pair of old foundations, neighbored by old-field White Pine. It is hilly, rocky cold land, but those foundations and a network of stonewalls indicate that it was once 'good enough'.

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The 1858 (below; I've included the modern road names) Beers maps of the County shows a pair of residences corrosponding to the two foundations we found along our hike The more northerly structure appears to have been that of J. Beebe and the more southerly that of a Mrs. Burrows (or Buroughs).

beers 1858
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1940s Beebe Hill
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The above aerial photograph from the 1940s shows ample traces of fields in what is now a largely forested landscape. The location of foundations is marked by the circles.

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By our millennium (above; with foundations indicated by purple circles), this is a wooded landscape.

This region was something of a no-man's land, claimed by the van Rensselaer's, but nonetheless settled by many New England squatters. It may not have been great land, but perhaps it was attainable. An inspection of the 1850 Agricultural returns for J. Beebe, S. Burroughs, and Egbert J. Barret (from west to east) show that these were modest farms, the first two being only 35 improved acres a piece, the latter being 150 improved acres. As summarized in this table, they raised a few sheep, grew some rye, oats, corn, potatoes, buckwheat, and hay. Butter was made from the pair of cows at each farm. The larger Barret farm, with 120 sheep, apparently produced wool, but it is unclear what else was for commerce vs. family consumption.

Exploring the old maps in a bit more detail shows that the precursor of Route 5 actually used to go west of Barret Pond (then called a 10-acre Trout Pond), a path evident in the below extract of the 1873 Beers map.

beers 1873
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Studying these maps and the historical aerial photographs suggests an original route of the road something like that portrayed by the dashed line below. This road eventually returned to the modern Route 5 corridor shortly before that corridor hits what is, today, Route 22. A spur off of this older road led up to the Beebe and Buroughs places. The southern portion of the old road is now a vague trail, but the northern section, together with the spur road and a continuation piece, lead to the Fire Tower, which you shouldn't overlook.

beeb bypass
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Relating to some of the more philospophical aspects of this nuggets, there numerous works which describe agriculture's early role in the political philosophy of this country and the subsequent evolution of that philosophy and related policy. Somewhat regional works include Harvest of Dissent by Thomas Summerhill, focussed on central New York and Columbia Rising by John Brooke about ... Columbia County. Both of these books touch upon the firey local issue of manors and tenant farming. Geographically broader books include Wendell Berry's well-known Unsettling of America and Paul B. Thompson's The Agrarian Roots of Pragmatism (which, I confess, I have not yet actually looked through). Finally, Steven Stoll's Larding the Lean Earth has a soil-based twist on agrarian thought and politics. Two books which provide a historical background to the regional evolution of agriculture as it entered the commerical/industrial age are Thomas Wermuth's Rip Van WInkle's Neighbors and, one of our favorites, Martin Bruegel's Farm, Shop, LandingNone of these provides a recipe for current policy, but they at least help us understand where we have been. Two works that try to take this historical background and apply it more explicity to current issues are Eric Freyfogle's Agrarianism and the Good Society and Brian Donahue's Reclaiming the Commons.

Understanding the early agroecology of our landscape is somewhat hampered by the realization that, at one point or another, people did everything they could think of to improve their lot. Until one immerses oneself in the literature and historiography of the time, this can make it difficult to isolate general patterns from 'freak' occurrences, at least for me. That's an apology for what might be a personal discovery of the obvious: farmers of the colonial and early federal periods relied heavily on wet meadows as a crucial ingredient in the agroecology of their farms.

In some cases, those were natural wet meadows; in some cases, those were meadows created in uplands by what was, essentially, hydroengineering (following techniques common in some parts of the "Old World"); often, it seems they were 'improvements' made to natural wetlands (e.g., constructing drainage so that flow could be better regulated; plowing and seeding during dry periods).  The most explicit case study of such practices in the Northeast is probably Brian Donahue's, The Great Meadow, a study of farm history and land management in and around Concord Massachusetts. However, as one reads historical accounts and explores the landscape, it seems clear that such a primacy for wet meadows was not a localized event. Although the planting of upland hay fields seems to have been one of the major innovations of late 18th century agriculture in our region, wet meadows appear to have retained an importance well into the 19th century.

One illustration of that continued importance is the landscape maps facilitated by the Brian Hall and colleagues, who georeferenced 1830s land survey maps from Massachusetts. Such maps seem to make clear that hay meadows were still a largely lowland affair.

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This map shows the location of hay meadows (indicated in bright green) in a portion of Berkshire County adjacent to Columbia County; notice that they are along valley waterways.

The story about the Shaker staddle is somewhat speculative. Lots of pieces seem to fit: the architectural remains seem to indicate a structure meant to keep something high and dry from the nearby swamp; locals mention the storing of hay in that structure during the last century; and Shaker accounts refer to haying in the swamp. What we don't know is how important that swamp hay was to their overall operation - was it a key component? was it a sidelight? The massiveness of the foundation suggests some importance, and yet, judging by some of their stonewalls, the Shakers seemed to build solid structures for anything they put their minds to.

Amanda Beloit, a 2010 summer intern, stands beside an apparent staddle by Shaker Swamp.

agricultural nutrient flow in landscape

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A somewhat hypothetical nutrient-flow mapping for one aspect of agriculture at the New Lebanon Shaker village.

I have collected these and some more images of the Shaker structure, of staddles in action, and maps of the landscape in this pdf file. For more on staddles in general  see
Wikipedia. They served dual purposes: lifting a structure away from dampness and preventing rodent infestations of stored crops. None of the round 'mushroom caps' associated with rodent-repelling staddles were evident during our visit, suggesting that keeping hay crops away from moist ground may have been the primary architectural goal.

If you have any comments on local agricultural architecture or know of historical sources that might let us better understand the historical agricultural landscape, we'd appreciate an email.
Two Old Foundations:
Of Land as Wealth

   One Easter, I took a cusp-of-dawn walk up Beebe Hill. It was a hollow hour, this one before sunrise; a time painted by sounds, when sight, still frustrated by darkness, was almost a distraction. The birds were awake, their songs crisp and filling. A Thrush posted its song on the wall of stillness like an oriole would flash its orange in the sun. Beside the dirt road, barely visible beneath the deeper shades of old-field pine, was a small foundation, little more than a slight elaboration of the stonewalls that angle through these woods. I knew of it from previous walks, and so perhaps it was more felt than seen.

   The question posed by this rock wall of early morning was not so much the purpose, but the place - the context. When those who lived here awoke on a similar Easter morning, 150 years ago, were there Thrush flutes to greet them, albeit from more distant forest? What did they see when they walked out their door into this same hill air? And, more importantly, if more nebulous, what did they think?


   The discovery that we made on another day, one warm and well-lit by the summer sun, was, in fact, a discovery only to us. The study of history is largely about re-discovering the once obvious and mundane. Glorious cathedrals, extensive canals, presidential deeds and domiciles are usually well marked in history. Forgotten are the ‘little facts’ such as the color of bootlaces, the usual location of the hay stack, or what people thought as they washed the dishes.

   What we found that day by Shaker Swamp was a discovery to us only because, ironically, it had once been so much part of the everyday. There, coddled by a green forest grove, were the remains of a foundation. It took our minds a moment to assemble the outline of the human construct midst the trunks of trees. It had been a large, rectangular structure, 100’ by 25’. Rock defined three sides, and the open side faced the Swamp. Within that outline was an oddity: an array of three-foot high stone and mortar pylons or pillars, arranged in careful rows. They now shared floor space with saplings from the returning forest.

   The intended permanence of the structure (there were some big stones in that foundation) and clear evidence of particular intent (these rows of pylons must have been for something) made it feel as if one had wandered into an uninhabited but fully furnished house. A stranger’s living room, with no stranger present to be queried, is like a ‘pocket Stonehenge’ in terms of the mysteries that it poses.


The trappings of the past do not necessarily hold current answers – the architecture of those foundations, the tools that leaned against the now-gone walls, the ways of dressing field and body – might or might not have some current utility. And yet the deepest challenges of our ways change little: we must still live coherently and consciously with each other and the land. It is as if the vessels of our wandering - our individual beings - may contain different captains and varied bearings, and yet retain a common hull-work and hence move similarly through the wind and water of time. New tools, new picks and shovels for achieving our immediate intents, do not change that, but they can bury important past insights under the conceit of the present.

   At present, for example, the idea of ‘land as wealth’ invokes many connotations: land as bankable reserve (our ‘real estate’); land as a source of physical and mental satisfaction - be we hunters, hikers or gardeners; land as a symbol of economic status. But these are not the only ways in which land has been and can be wealth.

   The family who built foundation, house and farm on the rocky soils of Beebe Hill was probably not looking for self-expression or a connection to the land, at least not in their modern, abstract forms. They may not have even considered their land in terms of resale value and future estate. However, one thing they were almost certainly looking to create was that which some call the only true wealth: the production of the Earth.

   There is something miraculous about the creation of ‘something from nothing’ that is the essence of farming. One only creates it from ‘nothing’ in the economic sense that agriculture is one of the few honest ways to ‘print money’(i.e., to create wealth); the ability to produce food, rather than to dig gold, is a natural standard for our riches. In a practical sense, such creation of wealth does require, at the least, labor and land.

   The core linkages among welfare of the family (and community), land access, and the potential for self-sufficiency encapsulated much of 19th century agrarianism, and, before that, were deemed key ingredients of a healthy republic by several founders of this country. The fact that tax structures and agricultural macroeconomics have now largely erased such potential, partially explains the frustration felt by those farmers who, while they have the will and ability to work and may own substantial acreage, now find themselves unable to pay the bills on their table.

   That mysterious collection of stone pylons that sprang up beside the Swamp was probably the remains of a ‘staddle’ – a structure that, in this context, bore hay above periodically wet ground. Records from the Shaker community uphill from the Swamp do mention hay harvest on these lowlands and the inclusion of livestock in the farming; a network of impressive stonewalls arrayed above the ‘staddle’ second that connection.

   From the Euphrates and the Nile on down through history, flowing water has been recognized as a source of replenishing nutrients. The Shakers apparently relied upon water-borne nutrients (some perhaps contributed by upstream farms) to feed their hay, upon hay-borne nutrients to feed their cattle, and upon manure-borne nutrients to feed their upland fields. The unplowed meadows of perennial grass and sedges controlled soil erosion during floods and helped trap passing, nutrient-bearing sediments.

   Pictured as a whole, such systems provided ways of reversing the usual downhill leakage of nutrients.
As was apparently the case with the Shakers and with the well-studied colonial farmers of Concord MA, among others, these landscape-scale nutrient flows were parts of a community-wide approach to agricultural sustainability in the Northeast during the 17th - 19th centuries. As important as the agronomy of such systems was their sociology: lots and fields of the village were carefully laid out by mutual consent so as to assure agrarian wealth not only to individual farmers but also to the local society as a whole.

   The pair of ideas illustrated above cannot necessarily be resurrected in the same way that one might restore faithful reproductions of wooden super-structures above our stone foundations. Agriculture and society have changed. And yet, as relatively long-practiced ways that people came to terms with the land and with themselves, the core questions of these practices deserve to remain part of modern discussions:
   Specifically, can we create a set of social policies that make the direct derivation of well-being from farming more widely accessible? And, can we think of our agriculture not only in terms of individual farms, but also in terms of the regional geography of collaborating farms that will result in the most efficient use of soil nutrients and so benefit the most people for the longest period of time?

Old foundations in the woods are intriguing for the past realities of the land which they evidence; paralleling those physical structures were once-built conceptual foundations of how humans lived with that landscape. While neither past barn nor former politic might fully fit into the present, both continue to ask resonant questions.

                                                --- Conrad Vispo.


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