The Summers Brothers: Imagining the Sustainable Plantation

written By David S. Shields

originally published in the rice paper newsletter, Spring 2012

 

Because any attempt to resuscitate a cuisine requires reviving the agricultural system that gave rise to it, a task before us is to research the best practices of the planters of the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida. Because of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation’s (CGRF) interest in the Lowcountry’s rice-based cuisine, we have tended to look to the writings of a half-dozen experimental rice planters of the antebellum period: James Hamilton Couper and Thomas Spalding of the Georgia Sea Islands and Joshua John Ward, R. F. W. Allston, William Washington, and J. Bryan from South Carolina. Their writings, for all their information about the management of Carolina Gold Rice and other field crops, did not speak to important dimensions of plantation food production. They provided little about livestock needed for meat production or the role of orchards and kitchen gardens in the market production of fruits and vegetables. 

To understand how the production of pork, beef, poultry, fruit, and vegetables connected with the cultivation of grains and field crops on a plantation we have to turn to the writings of planters from the sandhills skirting the Lowcountry. We have to turn to the greatest theoreticians of sustainable planting in the antebellum south: the Summer Brothers, chemist Thomas Summer, Col. Adam G. Summer of Ravenscroft Plantation, and William Summer of Pomaria Plantation in South Carolina.

Farming in the Newberry district of the Carolina sandhills, the Summer Brothers during the 1840s and ’50s put into place diversified farming systems. A visitor “would see, even in the winter, fields green with grass, winter oats, barley, wheat and turnips (ruta baga).”2 

One field of Egyptian winter oats pastured 30 Southdowns sheep who manured the three acres. In March this and other fields were deep plowed with a Remington Steel Plow and fertilized for cotton or corn. Cattle, pigs, horses, mules, and sheep supplied the plantation’s fertilizer. 

In the south the Summer Brothers pioneered the stabling of livestock. In 1859 S. B. Buckley observed, “This is the first and only instance I have seen of cows and cattle being stabled at the South.” Imitating the dairy-farming regimens of northern experimentalists such as Jesse Buel, the Summer Brothers maintained extensive pasturage, growing red clover and alfalfa for grazing, corn and oats for fodder, and root vegetables (rutabaga, sweet potato, and Jerusalem artichoke) for winter stall feeding.

Book farmers of the best sort, plugged into the major horticultural, agricultural, and pomological networks, the brothers jumped on every promising novelty. The experimental introduction of sorghum from France in 1853 had Adam Summer growing 20 acres of “sugar millet” for fodder. He fed cattle both millet and leaves.3

Thomas Summer, who studied chemistry in Germany under Justus Liebig, had begun the renovation of the midlands’ soil with Red Clover. Having read of the experiments in Pennsylvania of Judge Peters during the Revolutionary period with the red clover and gypsum, Summer showed that countering the acidity of the soil with an alkaline manure could enable this nutritious and soil-building cover to grow in the deep south.4 His findings on clover culture and his writings on the soil chemistry of cotton growing won him fame in southern agricultural circles despite his death while still in his twenties. 

 Col. Adam Summer

Col. Adam Summer

His brothers William and Adam took up his research and extended the experiments to include the fall planting of Bremen Oats, rye, barley, and buckwheat for winter grazing. William Summer thought a September planting of rye requisite for the pasturing of lambs and calves born in February.5 Because of rye’s tenacious root system, it holds up well to grazing, withstanding being trodden down or pulled. 

Rye first captured the attention of agriculturists in the 1830s. Jesse Buel may have been the first American to grow it in his experimental farm near Albany. A Charlestonian noted in 1840 that it was not grown in the South, but that seeds for both “Italian Rye Grass” and “Baily’s Rye” were readily available from European sources.6 The Summers were apparently the first to make systematic experiments with it in the early 1840s, growing the Italian Rye Grass and supplying well publicized progress reports to the Newberry Agricultural Society. 

In contrast to rye, barley did not lend itself to grazing. But because it was a “certain” crop, reliable in cold weather, and because it was nutritious, the Summer brothers grew it, scythed it, and employed it in stall feeding (known then as “soiling”) horses and cattle. Barley only became important in winter feeding with the establishment of livestock stables.

William Summer favored mixing root vegetables with grain and silage when stall feeding animals. Visitors remarked his use of the rutabaga, the Swedish turnip that vied with mangel wurtzel as the favorite feed root of progressive northern herdsmen. But Summer was more fascinated with the benefits of two other roots: the sweet potato and the Jerusalem artichoke. Sweet potatoes because of “the fine effect which they given when fed to milch cows” imparting sweetness and character to milk and butter, became a fixture in the planting scheme.7 The plant’s immense productivity (“no crop can be planted which will yield more to the acre”) particularly recommended it. 

Summer grew the Bermuda as an early crop, the white West Indian yam, the yellow yam, and the black Spanish variety. The potatoes were cured, chopped and mixed with silage before being offered to cattle. Unlike many sweet potato growers, Summer did not strip the leaves during the growing period to use as feed. Summer also tried using Jerusalem artichoke for stall feeding, but found that pigs preferred uprooting them in the field. Because the Jerusalem artichoke was perennial, prolific, and grew abundantly in stressed conditions, it was a forage crop singularly suited to waste areas on a property.

Several acres were planted in a peach orchard in Pomaria, S.C., last year, and under all the disadvantages of dense shade, drought, and exhausted soil, they produced quite a fine crop; and its adaptation as food for swine has been fully tested. A number of sows and pigs are now running on this last-mentioned lot and keep fat on what they glean from the field, which has been partially dug over, without a particle of other food. It is a great promoter of milk in all animals, and fully sustains the opinion ... concerning its being good food for cows and sheep.8

The Summer Brothers became famous early in the 1840s for their livestock by importing the best breeding stock available. Adam Summer purchased the award-winning Hereford bull calf “Pomaria” and the heifer “Marie” from the north’s premier breeders, Corning & Lotman, of Albany. His Southdowns Sheep came from John Ellman of Glynde, U.K. His flock of Cotswold Sheep (another long wooled breed) came from Sotham, a New York breeder.9 Col. Wade Hampton of Columbia, SC, bred his Blakewell Sheep, for which he won a premium in the 1846 State Agricultural Convention. For milk, he also secured a herd of Devon Cows from Lewis G. Morris of Maryland.10 From the same breeder he obtained a number of extraordinary Black Essex Pigs. For a decade he may have been the only breeder of Berkshire Hogs in the South Carolina.11 And he loved the Suffolk breed so much, he wrote a prose poem in their praise in the pages of the Southern Agriculturist.12 Only he and Richard Peters of Atlanta bred them pure in the south during 1850s. He loved the taste of their flesh, particularly after they had fed on fallen fruit in the plantation orchards.

Both William and Adam were avid pomologists. At William Summer’s plantation, Pomaria, an extensive orchard grew. Indeed, the plantings of fruit trees were so extensive that William operated the orchard as a nursery (the only one in the state) supplying the region with apple cuttings (Carolina Red June, Aromatic Carolina, Augustine, Epting’s Premium, Epting’s Red Winter, Lever, Maverick’s Sweet, Cook’s Red Winter, Hoover, Hammond, Ferdinand, and three of his own creations, the Greening Pomaria, the Fixlin, and Susannah),13 crab apples (Gore, Champagne Crab, and White Crab), Peaches (the Aremie, the white-fleshed Christiana, the Poinsett, Mrs. Poinsett, and Amelia varieties)14, Pears (Julienne, Sekel, Bartlett, Doynne Blanc, Duchesse d’Angouleme, B. Capiaumont, Fulton, Croft Castle, Dearborn, Upper Crust, Hebe)15 Adam’s plantation, Ravenscroft, possessed orchards of plums, apricots, and nectarines. 

By keeping a flock of chickens in the orchards, Col. Summer completely countered the depredations of the insect, curculio. “It takes more than a dozen hens and a gouty old cock to keep a few acres of these delicate trees clear of their enemies. A flock of a hundred is not too many: I find them a valuable auxiliary in manuring, as I consider domestic hen guano, properly tempered down, a good manure for trees the second year of their growth in the orchard.”16 

We know from premiums awarded at various fairs that Col. Summer excelled at breeding Dorking Fowl and Hong Kong Geese.17 The white five-toed Dorking fowl hailed from Surrey in England and won a reputation in England as the finest of yard birds for laying and for meat. While Summer ran his chickens through the orchard in Spring and Summer, in autumn he brought in his swine.

 


 

2 S. B. Buckley, “Visit to a South Carolina Plantation,” The Cultivator 7, 5 (May 1859) p. 146.

3 “Statement of A. G. Summer,” Report of the Commissioner of Patents for the Year 1857 Agriculture (Washington, D. C. James B. Steedman, 1858), p. 220.

4 Isaac Croom, “The Clovers and Grasses of the South,” The Cultivator 13, 8 (August 1855).

5 “Cultivation of Spring Grain at the South,” The Cultivator 1, 12 (Dec. 1844), p. 390.

6 “I doubt whether the Italian rye grass has ever been seen in the southern states and scarcely in America, although I have a faint recollection of seeing a few plants, some years ago, on the farm of Judge Buel, nearly Albany in New York.” “Notes on European Agriculture: The Grasses,” The Farmer’s Register 8 (1840), pp. 361-63.

7 William Summer, “The Culture of the Sweet Potatoe,” The Cultivator 2, 2 (Feb. 1845), pp. 65- 67.

8 “Jerusalem Artichoke,” The Monthly Journal of Agriculture 1, 11 (May 1846), p. 537.

9 “Hereford Cattle, Cotswold and South Down Sheep,” Massachusetts Ploughman and New England Journal of Agriculture 4, 12 (Dec. 21, 1844), p. 1. For A. G. Summer’s assessment of the breed, see “Hereford Cattle,” The Southern Cultivator 4, 11 (November 1844), p. 171. “Stock for the South,” The American Agriculturist 4, 12 (December 1845), p. 382.

10 “North Devons—the Proper Cattle for the South,” Southern Cultivator 16, 4 (April 1858), p. 117. “The Great Cattle Sale of Lewis G. Morris,” The American Farmer (August 1, 1856), p. 59.

11 “The December 1854 Agricultural Fair,” The Southern Cultivator 13, 1 (January 1855), p. 25. 

12 “Suffolk Pig—Again,” Southern Agriculturist (March 1853), p. 80.

13 “Apples for the South,” Horticulturist and Journal of Rural Art and Rural Taste 23, 267 (September 1868), pp. 273-74.

14 William Summer, “New Fruits of South Carolina,” Horticulturist and Journal of Rural Art and Rural Taste 4, 6 (Dec. 1849), p. 276.

15 “Report from South Carolina by William Summer,” Proceedings of the National Convention of Fruit Growers 1848 (New York: Van Norden & Amerman, for the American Pomological Society, 1848), p. 113; “Hebe Pear,” The Rural Carolinian 1, 1 (1870), p. 27.