Pushing Back the Roots of America’s Conservationist Writing: Agricultural Reform Literature of the Antebellum Era

Written by David Shields

Originally Published in The Rice Paper Newsletter, Fall 2009


Before the Civil War, specifically from 1820-1860, the number of agricultural journals published in the United States proliferated into the hundreds. Begun in 1819, the American Farmer printed in Baltimore, Maryland figured as the pioneer of these farm papers and forged what would become a transnational exchange of knowledge, ideas, observations, essays, public addresses, and editorials on all facets of agri- culture, including the preparation and consumption of food. Though many of these journals circulated only for a few years, others would cultivate a substantial subscription base over a period of decades. What propelled the fomentation of these agricultural publications, and what message did they seek to convey to their readers — farmers?

Already at the birth of the American Republic did the nation’s leaders (many of whom farmed) write and speak about the depleted soils rendering eastern farms (particularly in the mid-atlantic and southern regions) less and less productive. The long-held traditions of planting in monocultures of tobacco and cotton, fallowing instead of manuring and rotating crops, plowing vertically on hillsides, and planting the same crop on the same land year after year left much of the nation’s farmland eroded or exhausted. The call to farmers to restore these “worn out lands” with what the agricultural improvers promoted variably as “the new husbandry,” “scientific agriculture,” and “book farming” served as the mantra of the new age of agricultural reform led by the editors and contributing writers whose experience, expertise, innovation, and vision would promulgate the economic, ecological, political, and moral imperatives of sustaining farms and farming far into the future.

Given the primacy these conservationists assigned to practices of restoring and sustaining the soil as the basis for sustainable agriculture, we might consider the corpus of these agricultural journals as America’s first conservation writing in an era predating national programs and policies set forth decades later to conserve and protect wilderness lands. The most articulate of these agricultural writers were no less committed to (and eloquent at) conserving and restoring natural resources than were the likes of Henry Thoreau and John Muir, figures whom we more readily recognize as founders of American environmentalism. Even the poetry commonly featured in the farm papers conveyed moral lessons and practical instruction, and often exonerated the farmer as national hero. Some poets put recipes into verse, such as “Recipe for Making Sweet-Potato Pudding” and “Pudding and Beans” featured in the New England Farmer in 1833 and 1838 respectively.

Among the most strident and articulate of the editors of the farm press, Jesse Buel — also a judge and a farmer — wrote in 1838 that “we should consider our soil as we do our free institutions, a patrimonial trust to be handed down, unimpaired, to posterity; to be used, but not abused.” The health of the nation’s soil and citizenry formed an interdependent relationship. To carry out the the mission to preserve farm- ing as the nation’s economic and cultural foundation, the agricultural “improvers” as they were often called enlisted farmers (and especially those with some facility with the pen) to experiment, observe, record, and report on field trials with the latest thinking and practices involving but not limited to crop rotations, manuring, new seed varieties, soil analysis, and plowing techniques and implements. These journals exhorted farmers to acquire knowledge of the various branches of the natural sciences and to subscribe and contribute to the agricultural journal published in their respective regions as a means to increasing the productivity of their farms and, by doing so, advancing the state and status of the nation’s agriculture in general. Among the most important of the agricultural papers include The Cultivator published in Albany New York, the New England Farmer of Boston, the Genesee Farmer of Rochester, the Southern Agriculturist of Columbia, South Carolina, the Farmer’s Register of Petersburg, Virginia, the Southern Planter of Richmond, Virginia, and the Southern Cultivator of Augusta, Georgia.

Despite the high moral grandeur and visionary zeal characteristic of the agricultural journals of the time given to sustaining the vitality of the soil and the farm, they were equally devoted to enlightening readers to the proliferation of new and novel varieties of grains, fruits, vegetables, and legumes. Correspondents regularly shared their judgments of particular varieties for taste, resistance to pests and disease, productivity, and marketability — including rice. Among the major farm journals of the era, the Southern Agriculturist most prominently featured essays, reports, queries, and responses disputing or promoting all conceivable aspects of rice cultivation, including the merits and vagaries of particular seed varieties, harvesting methods, sowing and irrigation regimes, manuring, rotations, marketing, international trade, and recipes.

Featured in an 1828 issue of the Southern Cultivator is Thomas Pinckney’s experiment to free his fields of what many rice planters at the time relentless struggled to eradicate: “volunteer rice.” Pinckney reports variable success by having planted sections of a rice field in wheat, barley, oats, flax, slip potatoes, cowpeas, and the garden pea. Of these crops, barley, oats, and flax most effectively eradicated volunteer rice.

The Southern Agriculturist the same year featured the recommendations of Charles E. Rowand to rice planters to alternate planting their rice fields in cotton, corn, barley, or oats. Possibly the most pioneering of rice planters and one of the few who rotated crops as a matter of course, James Hamilton Couper reports in an 1833 issue of the Southern Agriculturist increasing his plantation’s productivity by following a rotation regime of sowing cowpeas followed by sugarcane, cotton, and rice over six successive years. He also intercropped cotton, peas, and corn on other fields. Other crops reported by southern farmers and planters as improvers of the soil include sweet potatoes, “pinders,” or peanuts, “skinless oats,” buckwheat, and rye.

Not only did certain of the more forward-thinking rice planters rotate crops and intercrop to increase the soil’s fertility, they also did so as a means to staving off the “volunteer rice” or “red rice” that regularly plagued rice fields by assessing, changing, and managing soil chemistry— a central focus of the “scientific farming” promoted in the agricultural improvement literature.

In 1828, Charles Munnerlyn writes, “Rice land that possesses any ill quality, or much polluted with volunteer Rice, I think could be greatly improved, by planting it a year in dry culture.”

In the same year and journal (Southern Agriculturist), Roswell King claims that “A rotation of crops is necessary to make large crops of Rice [. . .] as well as to eradicate the water grass and volun- teer Rice.”

Another correspondent in 1833 provides a detailed account of his success with keeping his fields clear of volunteer rice by sowing oats and slips (potatoes) alternately twice a year for two years, as Edward T. Heriot’s written account of his experiment with this rotation eleven years later would confirm. Other methods of eradication included the use of various manures and irrigation regimes. The question arises, how did these planters know how to eradicate volunteer rice without destroying the commodity rice varieties intended for cultivation? Surprisingly, their accounts provide us little or no explanation.

In the bigger picture, how did the agricultural journals as a whole change American agriculture? While it may be impossible to ascertain their impact apart from the broader realm of the agricultural reform movement of the time that included not only the journals but the activities of agricultural societies and “fairs,” farm manuals, and other non-print efforts, we can trace their influence upon the formation of agricultural colleges, the creation of the United States Department of Agriculture in 1862,  and the mechanization and industrialization of agriculture that have increased efficiency and productivity but, in retrospect, have compromised the ecological sustainability of modern agriculture. Yet given their reliance upon organic manures before the age of chemical fertilizers — and our own age in which their use has spawned a return to “organic” farming, we might learn from what the early nineteenth-century agriculturists had to say about farming and food. And too, we might incorporate their writing into America’s canon of environmental literature and the knowledge and wisdom found there into our culture of growing and eating food.

(Special Note)

Last Spring, the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation awarded a grant to Stephen Spratt, a Ph.D student of American Literature at the University of South Carolina, to research the major agricultural journals in circulation from 1819 to 1860 and extract articles on crop rotations and on varieties of grains, leg- umes, and peas. These findings will soon be accessible as PDF documents in the Foundation’s archives.

Stephen’s dissertation explores the mediating force which the agricultural press and the larger “print” world of agricultural writing exerted upon the imaginary and literal field of agriculture from the age of Thomas Jefferson and Hector St. Jean de Crevecoeur to the eve of the Civil War.