Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Woodward and Schmidt on New Jersey Agricultural History

Yesterday I sequestered myself in the bowels of Morris Library, reading the major overviews on New Jersey's agricultural history by Woodward (1927) and Schmidt (1973).

New Jersey has a complex rural history. I knew that the state was one of the most ethnically diverse in the colonies, but due to her various soils, topographies (coastal plains, piedmont, highlands and Appalachian ridges), and periods of initial settlement, so was agriculture. Throw in the "barrel tapped at both ends" phenomenon, and, what a mix.

According to Schmidt, from initial settlement to about 1810, the pioneer farmers learned by trial and error what worked in the new environment of  New Jersey. Growing crops and raising livestock mainly for subsistence, they, except for a few elite and educated farmers, got set in their ways. Some of their ways were, according to the opinions of some critical outsiders, wasteful and careless. Because land was the cheaper of a farmer's assets, which also included capital and labor, it got the least respect and stewardship. Untended fields and sloppy practices appalled European observers. Much soil was washed away. Most farmers were illiterate, so ideas circulating in the press did not reach them. And because of the diversity of soils, etc, improved methods that worked in one area would not necessary work across the state. As long as time-tested methods provided a living to New Jerseyans, they were not about to risk changing their ways. This resistance was the worst in the earliest-settled areas--the northeast and the southwest. Salem County, my subject area, is in the southwest.

Woodward's overview recounted the early promoters of agriculture in the colony--the gentlemen farmers who had the means and time to experiment with farming, and who recognized the universal need to improve it in the colony. After 1750, these early promoters began forming agricultural societies, though the cities tapping the barrel of New Jersey--New York and Philadelphia--also tapped its leaders to their societies, and New Jersey's own failed in no time. Two men from Salem County, Robert G. Johnson and Clayton Wistar, joined the Philadelphia society between 1808 and 1818. A county society founded in 1826 also did not last.

Other means of promotion were fairs, until they were banned for uncontrollable bad behavior, and printed media--almanacs, newspapers, and farming journals. The effect of print was limited, and state and local ag societies did not take off, until the mid-nineteenth century, when the populace was better educated. Then, the early, privately-initiated efforts to educate farmers gave way to publicly-sponsored means, such as the State Agricultural Society in 1856, the Federal Morrill Act and the establishment of New Jersey's land-grant ag school at Rutgers College in 1864, the State Board of Agriculture in 1872 and the Agricultural Experimental Station in 1880.

That was helpful. Next--local, site-specific research.


No comments:

Post a Comment