Sunday, September 30, 2018

Can't eat all that tobacco - Problems Growing 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...Maryland's population during this same half-century also tripled, & 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...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...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 specialized skills than the menial labor slaves typically performed. And, as the countryside became more settled, problems with growing food 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...

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 the spread of contagious diseases. At the same time, there were more Marylanders to feed, as the state's population increased from over 300,000 in 1790, to more than 400,000 in 1820.