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What I Know Of Farming

Rural Depopulation

Complaint is widely made of a decrease in the relative population of our
rural districts; and not without reason, or, at least, plausibility. I
presume the Census of 1870 will return no more farmers in the State of
New York, and probably some fewer in New England, than were shown by the
Census of 1860. The very considerable augmentation of the number of
their people will be found living wholly in the cities and incorporated
villages. I doubt whether there are more farmers in the State of New
York to-day than there were in 1840, though the total population has
meantime doubled. Many farms have been transformed into country-seats
for city bankers, merchants, and lawyers; others have been consolidated,
so that what were formerly two or three, now constitute but one; and,
though every body says, "Our farms are too large for our capital," "We
run over too much land," etc., etc., yet, I can hear of few farms that
have been, or are expected to be, divided, except into village or city
lots; while the prevalent tendency is still the other way. An
inefficient farmer dies heavily in debt, or is sold out by the sheriff:
his farm is rarely divided between two purchasers, while it is quite
often absorbed into the estate of some thrifty neighbor; and thus small
farmers are selling out and moving westward much oftener than large
ones. Such are the obvious facts: now for some of the reasons:

I. Our State, like New England, was originally all but covered by a
heavy growth of forest. The removal of this timber involved very much
hard work, most of which has been done in this century, and much of it
by the present generation. When I first traversed Chautauqua County,
forty-three years ago, from two-thirds to three-fourths of her acres
must have been still covered with the primeval forest--a tall, heavy
growth of Beech, Maple, Hemlock, White Pine, etc., which yielded very
slowly to the efforts of the average chopper. Many a pioneer gave half
his working hours for twenty years to the clearing off of Timber,
Fencing, cutting out roads, etc., and had not sixty acres in arable
condition at the last. Outside of the villages, the population of that
county was probably as great in 1830 as it is to-day, though the annual
production of her tillage was not half what it now is. Her farms are now
made; her remaining woodlands are worth about as much per acre as her
tillage; there is now comparatively little timber-cutting, or
land-clearing; and two-thirds of the pioneers, or their sons who
inherited their farms, have sold out, or been sold out, and pushed
further westward. Meantime, Grazing and Dairying have extensively
supplanted Grain-growing; and farmers who found more work than they
could do on 60 or 80 acres, now manage 160 to 320 acres with ease. I do
not say that they ought not to farm better; I only state the facts that
they thrive by this dairy-farming, and are not exhausting their lands.
And what is true of Chautauqua is measurably true of half the rural
Counties in our State.

II. Formerly, Wood was the only fuel known to our farmers, while immense
quantities of it were burned in our cities, at the salt-works, etc. At
present, wood is scarcely used for fuel, except as kindling, in any of
our cities, villages, or manufactories, while the consumption of Coal by
our farmers is already very large, and rapidly extending. All this
reduces the demand for labor on our farms and in our forests, while
increasing the corresponding demand in the Coal Mines, and on the
railroads. Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, has doubled her population
within the last twelve or fourteen years; and this at the expense of our
rural districts.

III. Our agricultural implements and machinery grow annually more
effective, and at the same time more costly. The outfit of a good farm
costs five-fold what it did forty years ago. The farmer makes and
secures his Hay far more rapidly and effectively than his father did,
but pays far more for Reapers, Mowers, Rakers, etc.; in other words, he
makes Winter work abridge that of Summer--makes a hundred days' work in
some village or city save thrice as many days' work on his farm. This
enhances his profits, but swells our urban, while it diminishes our
rural population.

IV. Much has been said of the degeneracy and increasing sterility of the
New England Puritan stock. All this is shallow and absurd. There never
before were so many people who proudly traced their origin to a New
England ancestry as now. What is true in the premises is this: The New
England stock is becoming very widely diffused, and is giving place, to
a considerable extent, to other elements in its original home. Forty
years ago, at least seven-eighths of the inhabitants of Boston were of
New England birth and lineage; now, hardly half are so. The descendants
of the Pilgrims are scattered all over our wide country; while hundreds
of thousands have flowed in from Ireland, from Germany, from Canada, to
fill the places thus relinquished; and, since most of the immigrants,
whether into or out of New England, seek their future homes in the
spring-time of life, their children are mainly born to them after rather
than before their migration. The Yankees have no fewer children than
formerly; but they are now born in Minnesota, in Illinois, in Kansas;
while those born in New England are, for identical reasons, in large
proportion of Irish or of Canadian parentage. There are New England
townships, whereof most of the heads of families are long past the prime
of life; their children having left them for more attractive
localities, and the work on their farms being now done mainly by
foreign-born employes. As a general rule, the boys first wandered off;
leaving the girls only the alternative of following, or dying in
maidenhood. Marked diversities of race, of creed, and of education, have
thus far prevented any considerable intermingling of the Yankee with the
foreign element by marriage. And what is true of New England is
measurably true of our own State.

I have not intended by these observations to combat the assumption that
our people too generally prefer other employments to farming. The
obstacles to effective modern Agriculture--that is, to agriculture
prosecuted by the help of efficient machinery--presented by that
incessant alternation of rock and bog, which characterizes New England
and some parts of New York, I have already noted; and they interpose a
serious, discouraging impediment to agricultural progress. A farm
intersected by two or three swamps and brooks, separated by steep,
rocky, ridges, and dotted over with pebbly knolls, sometimes giving
place to a strip of sterile sand, is far more repulsive to the capable,
intelligent farmer of to-day than it was to his grandfather. So far as
my observation extends, there are more New England farms on which you
cannot, than on which you can, find ten acres in one unbroken area
suitable for planting to Corn, or sowing to Winter Grain. Hence,
Agriculture in the East will always seem petty and irregular when
brought into contrast with the prairie cultivation of the West. Grain
can never be grown here so cheaply nor so abundantly as there; while the
tendency of our pastures to cover themselves over with moss and
worthless shrubs, unless frequently broken up and reseeded, makes even
dairying more difficult and costly in New England and along its western
border than in almost any other part of our country.

Yet, these discouragements are balanced by compensations. Timber springs
luxuriantly and grows rapidly throughout this region; while our harsh,
capricious climate gives to our Hickory, White Oak, White Ash, and other
varieties, qualities unknown to such grown elsewhere, while prized
everywhere. Apples, and most fruits of the Temperate Zone, do well with
us; while our cities and manufacturing villages proffer most capacious
markets. Potatoes and other edible roots produce liberally, and
generally command good prices. Hay sells for $12 to $30 per ton, is
easily grown, and is in eager and increasing demand. We ought to produce
twice our present crop from the same area, and have need of every pound
of it; for neither our cattle nor our sheep are nearly so numerous nor
so well fed as they should be. In short, there is money to be made, by
those who have means and know how, by buying New England farms, tilling
them better, and growing much larger crops than their present occupants
have done. There are many who can do better in the West; but the right
men can still make money by farming this side of the Susquehanna and the
Genesee; and I would gladly incite some thousands more of them to try.

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