Monday, July 16, 2018

Growing & Eating Food Crops in 18C Maryland


In the half-century century leading up to the American Revolution, tobacco exports from the Chesapeake tripled, marking an important evolution in Maryland's agriculture. Tobacco prices, which in the unstable market economy of seventeenth-century agriculture had fluctuated wildly, became relatively stable, & tobacco reigned supreme. In 1723, Britain dropped its re-export fees on tobacco, & France opened its market to Chesapeake-grown leaf, through the hands of British brokers. Though tobacco prices declined slowly & steadily, the result was relative stability. Profit from growing tobacco came from lowering costs rather than from rising prices.

Maryland's population during this same half-century also tripled, & presumably many newly arrived families entered the staple-crop business. More importantly, the slave population tripled, & virtually all of those hands went to tending this labor-intensive commodity. According to one estimate, a single worker could manage two & a half acres (roughly 6,800 plants), & produce 2,500 pounds of leaf.

Tobacco plants were so labor intensive because each plant needed close tending, first to keep down moisture-robbing weeds, then to pick off insects & pinch back smaller top leaves so that a few grew large. From seedbed preparation, to transplanting seedlings into hoed-up mounds, through the daily routine of picking & pinching, to cutting the mature plants, splitting their stalks & hanging them on poles in a barn to dry, no other crop required so much attention. Although a planter could employ his entire family in this work, & perhaps afford a white servant too, slaves provided a labor source that was more readily exploitable. As the 18C progressed, slave-owning expanded & became entrenched, particularly among planters of modest means in southern Maryland & on the Eastern Shore, who borrowed money from tobacco agents to buy a slave or two, who then represented the most valuable assets of the owners' estates. By the first U.S. Census in 1790, slaves numbered over one hundred thousand, making up about a third of Maryland's population, & most of the labor force in the tobacco economy.

Most Maryland farmers, however, did not own slaves, even if they aspired to do so one day. Some farmers were too old, some too young, & some too unlucky to reach a position where they could undertake the economic gamble slaves represented. Still others, like the Quakers who moved from Pennsylvania to the Eastern Shore, rejected slavery on moral grounds. But for the German & Scots-Irish farmers who came to the Monocacy Valley in the 1740s, slave labor simply did not meet the most pressing need. Plowing & harrowing fields for small grains, growing & hackling flax, pruning orchard trees, making brandy, & keeping livestock fat & healthy enough to sell required more skill than the extensive menial labor slaves typically performed. And, as the countryside became more settled, problems with growing things grew more challenging.

Increasing settlements meant that more land was occupied, reducing the amount of new land available for tobacco. Increased populations also meant that people, farms, crops, & livestock were closer together, making it easier for diseases to spread among animals & crops.

Sometime shortly before or during the American Revolution, wheat growers in Maryland began to experience the same fungal disease that had wiped out that crop in New England earlier-stem rust. Puccinia graminis can live on the barberry, a dense, spiny hedge, during the winter. The fungus spread its spores to wheat fields in summer, shriveling the kernels & turning the straw a rusty brown. Hard winters retarded the disease, but when a damp spring turned hot & dry after a mild winter, stem rust spread easily & could cause almost total crop loss.

Farmers knew that the barberry was implicated, but it was so common there was little chance of eliminating it. If they planted crops later to escape the disease, farmers ran the risk of insect damage from the highly destructive gall midge, Mayetiola destructor, that went by the more popular name "Hessian fly." Just as wheat plants ripened, the midge's larvae ate through the straw, causing the berry head, the part of the plant where the wheat itself grows, to fall off. Some believed this insect arrived in the bedding of Hessian soldiers, but whether it did or not, it coincided with stem rust to make growing wheat increasingly troublesome.

Horse glanders, an infectious & contagious respiratory disease; cattle fever, spread by ticks; & gapes, a worm affliction of poultry, all seem to have appeared in Maryland about the time of the Revolution. Glanders had been known in Europe since Roman times, & may have arrived with British cavalry mounts, as American observers claimed. Cattle fever originated from a protozoan, Babesia bigemia, that first infected ticks in the lower South, & then fed upon the blood of tick-infested cattle. Over time, cattle in the lower South developed resistance to the protozoan, but when drovers moved livestock from Georgia & the Carolinas up the Piedmont trails to supply Washington's army, the ticks spread the fever to susceptible animals.

Gapes existed worldwide from various nematodes whose larvae first took up residence in earthworms, snails, slugs & flies but ended up in the trachea of poultry. As Andrew Wiesenthal described it around Baltimore in 1799, "gaps" destroyed 80 percent of local chickens & turkeys on old established farms. As a professor of anatomy, he noted how the birds strangled, & used a feather to extract the worms from a chick's throat, but mentioned that no remedy existed.

In the 18C, crop epidemics & livestock epizootics, or widespread diseases, emerged for the first time in Maryland, not just from the responsible pathogens appearing for the first time but because farmers had created an agricultural landscape significant enough to be vulnerable to contagious diseases. As the state's population increased from over 300,000 in 1790, to more than 400,000 in 1820.

Written by G. Terry Sharrer