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What I Know Of Farming

Steam In Agriculture

As yet, the great body of our farmers have been slow in availing
themselves of the natural forces in operation around them. Vainly for
them does the wind blow across their fields and over their hill-tops.
It neither thrashes nor grinds their grain; it has ceased even to
separate it from the chaff. The brook brawls and foams idly adown the
precipice or hillside: the farmer grinds his grain, churns his cream,
and turns his grindstone, just as though falling water did not embody
power. He draws his Logs to one mill, and his Wheat, Corn, or Rye to
another, and returns in due season with his boards or his meal; but the
lesson which the mill so plainly teaches remains, by him unread. Where
running or leaping water is not, there brisk breezes and fiercer gales
are apt to be. But the average farmer ignores the mechanical use of
stream and breeze alike, taxing his own muscle to achieve that which the
blind forces of Nature stand ready to do at his command. It may not, and
I think it will not, be always thus.

Steam, as a cheap source of practically limitless power, is hardly a
century old; yet it has already revolutionized the mechanical and
manufacturing industry of Christendom. It weaves the far greater part of
all the Textile Fabrics that clothe and shelter and beautify the human
family. It fashions every bar and every rail of Iron or of Steel; it
impels the machinery of nearly every manufactory of wares or of
implements; and it is very rapidly supplanting wind in the propulsion of
vessels on the high seas, as it has already done on rivers and on most
inland waters.

Water is, however, still employed as a power in certain cases, but
mainly because its adaptation to this end has cost many thousands of
dollars which its disuse would render worthless.

I am quite within bounds in estimating that nine-tenths of all the
material force employed by man in Manufactures, Mechanics, and
Navigation, is supplied by Steam, and that this disproportion will be
increased to ninety-nine hundredths before the close of this century.

For Agriculture, Steam has done very much, in the transportation of
crops and of fertilizers, but very little in the preparation or
cultivation of the soil. Of steam-wagons for roads or fields,
steam-plows for pulverizing and deepening the soil, and
steam-cultivators for keeping weeds down and rendering tillage more
efficient, we have had many heralded in sanguine bulletins throughout
the last forty years, but I am not aware that one of them has fulfilled
the sanguine hopes of its author. Though a dozen Steam-Plows have been
invented in this country, and several imported from Europe, I doubt that
a single square mile of our country's surface has been plowed wholly by
steam down to this hour. If it has, Louisiana--a State which one would
not naturally expect to find in the van of industrial progress--has
enjoyed the benefit and earned the credit of the achievement.

Of what Steam has yet accomplished in direct aid of Agriculture, I have
little to say, though in Great Britain quite a number of steam-plows are
actually at work in the fields, and (I am assured), with fair success.
Until something breaks or gives out, one of these plows does its
appointed work better and cheaper than such work is or can be done by
animal power; but all the steam-plows whereof I have any knowledge seem
too bulky, too complicated, too costly, ever to win their way into
general use. I value them only as hints and incitements toward something
better suited to the purpose.

What our farmers need is not a steam-plow as a specialty, but a
locomotive that can travel with facility, not only on common
wagon-roads, but across even freshly-plowed fields, without
embarrassment, and prove as docile to its manager's touch as an average
span of horses. Such a locomotive should not cost more then $500, nor
weigh more than a tun when laden with fuel and water for a half-hour's
steady work. It should be so contrived that it may be hitched in a
minute to a plow, a harrow, a wagon, or cart, a saw or grist-mill, a
mower or reaper, a thresher or stalk-cutter, a stump or rock-puller, and
made useful in pumping and draining operations, digging a cellar or
laying up a wall, as also in ditching or trenching. We may have to wait
some years yet for a servant so dexterous and docile, yet I feel
confident that our children will enjoy and appreciate his handiwork.

The farmer often needs far more power at one season than at another, and
is compelled to retain and subsist working animals at high cost through
months in which he has no use for them, because he must have them when
those months have transpired. If he could replace those animals by a
machine which, when its season of usefulness was over, could be cleaned,
oiled, and put away under a tight roof until next seeding-time, the
saving alike of cost and trouble would be very considerable.

When our American reapers first challenged attention in Great Britain,
the general skepticism as to their efficiency was counteracted by the
suggestion that, even though reaping by machinery should prove more
expensive than reaping by hand, the ability to cut and save the
grain-crop more rapidly than hitherto would over-balance that
enhancement of cost. In the British Isles, day after day of chilling
wind and rain is often encountered in harvest-time: the standing Wheat
or Oats or Barley becoming draggled, or lodged, or beaten out, while the
owner impatiently awaits the recurrence of sunny days. When these at
length arrive, he is anxious to harvest many acres at once, since his
Grain is wasting and he knows not how soon cloud and tempest may again
be his portion. But all his neighbors are in like predicament with
himself, and all equally intent on hurrying the harvest; so that little
extra help is attainable. If now the aid of a machine may be commanded,
which will cut 15 or 20 acres per day, he cares less how much that work
will cost than how soon it can be effected. Hence, even though cutting
by horse-power had proved more costly than cutting by hand, it would
still have been welcome.

So it is with Plowing, here and almost everywhere. Our farmers have this
year been unable to begin Plowing for Winter Grain so early as they
desired, by reason of the intense heat and drouth, whereby their fields
were baked to the consistency of half-burned brick. Much seed will in
consequence have been sown too late, while much seeding will have been
precluded altogether, by inability to prepare the ground in due season.
If a machine had been at hand whereby 15 or 20 acres per day could have
been plowed and harrowed, thousands would have invoked its aid to enable
them to sow their Grain in tolerable season, even though the cost had
been essentially heavier than that of old-fashioned plowing. I traversed
Illinois on the 13th and 14th of May, 1859, when its entire soil seemed
soaked and sodden with incessant rains, which had not yet ceased
pouring. Inevitably, there had been little or no plowing yet for the
vast Corn-crop of that State; yet barely two weeks would intervene
before the close of the proper season for Corn-planting. Even if these
should be wholly favorable, the plowing could not be effected in season,
and much ground must be planted too late or not planted at all. In every
such case, a machine that would plow six or eight furrows as fast as a
man ought to walk, would add immensely to the year's harvest, and be
hailed as a general blessing.

I recollect that a German observer of Western cultivation--a man of
decided perspicacity and wide observation--recommended that each farmer
who had not the requisite time or team for getting in his Corn-crop in
due season should plow single furrows through his field at intervals of
3 to 3-1/2 feet, plant his Corn on the earth thus turned, and proceed,
so soon as his planting was finished, to plow out the spaces as yet
undisturbed between the springing rows of Corn. I do not know that this
recommendation was ever widely followed; but I judge that, under certain
circumstances, it might be, to decided advantage and profit.

I have not attempted to indicate all the benefits which Steam is to
confer directly on Agriculture, within the next half-century. That
Irrigation must become general, I confidently believe; and I anticipate
a very extensive sinking of wells, at favorable points, in order that
water shall be drawn therefrom by wind or steam to moisten and enrich
the slopes and plains around them. Such a locomotive as I have
foreshadowed might be taken from well to well, pumping from each in an
hour or two sufficient water to irrigate several of the adjacent acres;
thus starting a second crop of Hay on fields whence the first had been
taken, and renewing verdure and growth where we now see vegetation
suspended for weeks, if not months. I feel sure that the mass of our
farmers have not yet realized the importance and beneficence of
Irrigation, nor the facility wherewith its advantages may be secured.

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