The Farmscape Ecology Program * KYPP Nugget 3: Mar. 15, 2010

KYPP Nugget: Local Grains

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. 

Local 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 County, 1790-Present

Grain Production Graph

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 chemicals.



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 Surplus

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 decline.


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.

2/18 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 sustenance.

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 daily bread.

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 agricultural landscape. 

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 sustenance. 

Meanwhile, 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, at /fep/columns.html.  We invite your comments, questions, and observations of the landscape.  Please send to:

Winter Rye Field
Rye field in Philmont, February 2010

Sowing the Future event
"Sowing the Future" event, October 2009.

Sowing the Future
"Sowing the Future" event, October 2009.

Stalks of rye
Stalks of rye used to make chapatis.