This Week in The
Columbia Paper: "Echoes New and Old"
Thoughts on our changing
wildlife and landscape in FEP's next Perspectives on Place column in
The Columbia Paper, March 18, 2010.
Grains: Background Exploration
Grain has always been an important part of agriculture in Columbia
County, though its form and use has changed greatly over
time. The following timeline gives a small picture of these
changes, while the bibliography at the end lists some of the key
sources that helped us piece together the evolving nature of local
grain production. The graph below, derived from historical
census data, provides a visual picture of the rise and fall of
different grains in Columbia County.
Graph of Grain Production in Columbia
There are several interesting trends to observe in this graph,
especially in light of the historic circumstances described in the
timeline below. For instance, you can see how grains such as
rye and oats rose and fell in the second half of the 19th century -
closely tied to their role in service of specific industrial
markets. Also, you can see how grain production spiked in the
1950s, with the sudden widespread availability of agricultural
TIMELINE FOR LOCAL GRAIN PRODUCTION
Corn was the first grain to be cultivated in the Hudson Valley, and
indeed is the only grain native to the Americas. Along with
squash and beans, it formed the "three sisters" at the heart of Native
American agriculture in the region, and a small but important part of
the diverse diet of the Mohicans living along the Hudson.
Story has it that when Henry Hudson first sailed into Columbia County
in 1609, he saw corn in quantity "enough to load three ships" (Reported
in Ellis 1878, p. 10).
18th Century: Subsistence and
Columbia County families in the 18th century grew much of the grain
they needed to feed their families and livestock, with each farm
cultivating approximately 10-14 acres of grain at the turn of the 19th
century (Bruegel 2002, p. 47). Many also used any surplus to
engage in small-scale trade - a few bushels of wheat traded with a
neighbor, exchanged for goods at a store, or brought to the landing
docks of the Hudson to be sent downriver to New York City.
Perhaps no structure was more central to the regionally self-sufficient
agricultural lifestyle in the 18th century than the water-powered
gristmill, where families brought their harvests of grains to be ground
into flour. As such, one can see in the decline of
gristmills, the decline of regional self-sufficiency in food
production. In 1822, three years before the Erie Canal opened
the floodgates to Western grain, there were 62 gristmills in Columbia
County; by 1840, the number had dropped to 39 (Spafford 1824, p. 127;
U.S. Census of Agriculture, 1840).
This gristmill at Sturbridge Village in
Massachusetts was probably very similar to those in Columbia
County. Photo by Conrad Vispo.
19th Century: Flows of Grain
The first half of the 19th century saw a flurry of transportation
improvements that substantially altered the production and consumption
of grain in Columbia County. Wheat production that had
hobbled along with yields decreasing from pests, diseases and soil
exhaustion, was no longer competitive or appealing with the advent of
the Erie Canal in 1825. The Canal slashed the time and cost
of transporting grain from Western New York and the Midwest - where
yields were often three times greater than in Columbia
County. Meanwhile, the new railroads facilitated a regional
shift to increasingly commercial production to meet rising market
demands. The New York and Harlem line reached Chatham in
1852, bringing Columbia County into direct rail connection with the
markets of New York City. Oat production soared in response
to the "insatiable" demand for fodder to feed the horse population of
New York City (Stott 2007, p. 137). Increased rye production
provided straw bedding for these same horses, as well as the rye straw
fueling the explosiong of straw paper production in Columbia County in
the second half of the 19th century (Stott 2007). By the
1870s, Columbia County produced more rye than any other county in the
country; 42,500 acres were reported grown in 1879 (Ken Piester,
Cooperative Extension Agent, reported in The Independent, 1/3/1991).
20th Century: Grain and Cattle
As the markets for rye and oats dried up at the turn of the 20th
century with the close of rye paper mills, and the switch from horses
to cars, grain production in Columbia County began to
plummet. This trend briefly reversed mid-century as the onset
of widespread agro-chemical use (the "green revolution") dramatically
increased yields, but the general downward trend continued for most
grains - except corn. The dramatic increases in the
production of corn in the County, largely for cattle feed, closely
followed the increase in dairy production - and more recently, its
Bruegel, Martin. 2002. Farm, Shop, Landing.
Ellis, Franklin. 1878. History of Columbia County.
Foster, David. 2008. Agrarian Landscapes in Transition:
Comparisons of Long-Term Ecological and Cultural Change
Hedrick, Ulysses. 1933. A History of Agriculture in the State
of New York.
Parkerson, Donald. 1995. The Agricultural Transition in New
York State: Markets and Migration in Mid-Nineteenth Century America.
Russell, Howard. 1982. A Long, Deep Furrow.
Spafford, Horatio. 1824. A Gazetteer of the State
of New York.
Stott, Peter. 2007. Looking for Work.
Wermuth, Thomas. 2001. Rip Van Winkle's Neighbors
column: "Fields of Winter Rye"
by Anna Duhon
The frozen fields in Columbia
County hold countless quiet secrets. One of these – more rare
than most – I await with particular expectation this year. Of
the many seeds and bulbs safely harbored in the winter ground, there
are a tiny few destined to be bread.
Up until recently, this process
of producing bread from the earth has seemed to me so remote as to be
baffling. Yes, we are blessed here in Columbia County with a
fertile landscape that produces meat, vegetables, fruit and milk; but
bread? The stuff of bread – flour, salt, oil – comes from the
store, and ultimately, one presumes, a distant elsewhere.
And yet there we were this past
October, dozens strong, hand-sowing a field of rye on 5 acres of land
in Philmont as part of an event called “Sowing the Future.”
Lining up at the edge of the field, we walked forward casting handfuls
of grain from last year’s harvest as we went. One takes
quickly to this simple gesture, and it is easy to imagine millennia of
ancestors similarly engaged in sowing the autumn grain for future
In Columbia County, however, it
has been several generations since cereal grains such as rye or wheat
were widely sown for human consumption.
This was certainly not always
the case. Indeed, most early settlers depended on the grains
they could cultivate to feed their animals and themselves.
The mark of this dependence can still be read in our current landscape,
as many town centers developed out of settlements clustered around the
stream-powered gristmills that could grind a family’s grain for the
Yet even this history seems
remote – how exactly do fields of cereal grasses turn into the bread
needed to feed a county? I was greatly helped in conceiving
of this process by happening upon a 4th grade
class activity. The kids were matter-of-factly transforming
bundled stalks of rye into the day’s snack. Talk about
cooking from scratch! In the course of twenty minutes I
watched, amazed, as they separated kernels of grain from the stalks of
rye, blew away the chaff, ground the seeds into flour, combined that
with salt and oil, and proceeded to fry and eat delicious chapattis, a
traditional flatbread from India.
Though the early settlers may
not have eaten chapattis, they did eat a lot of wheat, and accordingly
focused much of their efforts on producing this staple food
crop. By 1790, wheat was likely cultivated on around 32,000
acres of land in Columbia County, and in good years many bushels were
shipped down river to New York City and beyond. In 1822,
there were 62 gristmills positioned on the streams of Columbia County,
busily grinding grain into flour to be made into bread.
In a matter of decades, however,
such cereal production fell drastically. Therein lies another
quiet secret, how such a central agricultural activity slipped
away. Though looking closer, it is not very hidden or at all
quiet. The stage was set with mounting soil exhaustion and
decades of ravaging wheat pests and diseases. Add to this the call of
the boatmen on the Erie Canal, which once completed in 1825, flooded
Eastern New York with cheap cereals from the new fertile lands opening
up in the Western part of the state.
The grinding chug of trains
quickly followed in the 1840s and 1850s, powering even cheaper grain to
Eastern New York from the large Midwestern plains, to this day the
“bread basket” of the country. In the rockier, hillier,
thin-soiled country of the Hudson Valley, the delicate art of wheat
production was soon abandoned.
Yet grain production overall in
Columbia County did not slip away; it just shifted from its direct role
in human consumption to meeting the needs of the new industrial and
Rye is a fascinating example of
this shift. In the second half of the 19th
century, local rye cultivation surged, and by some accounts Columbia
County produced more rye than any other county in the
country. However, the primary product was rye straw, to
supply both the booming local paper manufacturing industry and the
bedding needed for countless horses (New York City’s transportation
system at the time.) Gasoline motors and wood-pulp paper
ended this boom by the early 1900s.
Coming back full circle, we are
again sowing rye to be made into bread in Columbia County.
This excites me not just because I got to cast a few handfuls of those
grains, but also because grain is still at the core of our local diet,
and thus an important part of any attempt to create greater regional
self-sufficiency in our food system. We may never be known as
a “bread basket” here in Columbia County, but the fact that not so long
ago we led the nation in the production of rye seems to hint at an
untapped potential for our landscape to provide greater
reaching up through earth and snow, the rye grains we cast in October
are quietly expressing their own potential to grow and multiply, and
ultimately become bread on the table.
Additional background information on this and
previous “Perspectives on Place” columns is available on our website,
We invite your comments, questions, and observations of the
landscape. Please send to: email@example.com
Rye field in Philmont, February 2010
"Sowing the Future" event, October 2009.
"Sowing the Future" event, October 2009.
Stalks of rye used to make chapatis.