Advice to Farmers

Dan Allosso

People have been giving advice to farmers throughout American history.  Sometimes farmers themselves have written about their favorite techniques or innovations, but often experts have tried to compile the “best practices” of the past and add new ideas developed by scientists and technologists.  The progressive era amped up this process, and turned the USDA and land grant “Agricultural and Technical” universities into big producers of information for rural people.

But that process is a story for another day.  Today, what caught my attention is an old (1880) book I found in the UMass library stacks, called Farming for Profit (online here).  Written by John Elliot Read (who claims in the introduction to be “a practical farmer, acquainted with the details of farm management, and thoroughly used to manual labor”), the book promises to show “How to Make Money and Secure Health and Happiness on the Farm.”  I think it’s interesting that even a volume designed to be an “Encyclopedic” and “Comprehensive” source of “Mechanics” and “Business Principles” in 1880 puts the rural lifestyle front and center.

Farming for Profit is a fascinating combination of late-nineteenth century technique and culture—both of which can be compared with what came after.  At some point, I’m going to make a more thorough study of how the two elements of farm tech and farm life changed over time.  For right now, I thought these items were interesting:

In the illustration at the top, across from the title-page of the book, we get a more or less classical view of farm life—not of technology.  There are no new machines in the picture, and the buildings don’t even seem to be in the best repair.  The impression I get is of an ancient and venerable way of life.  Peaceful, slow-moving, and dignified.  Later in the book, there are more practical illustrations, like this diagram of an ideal farmstead.  And in another illustration, we see more evidence of a transition in farming: the first view is of corn plants (old-fashioned ones, not the super-hybrids we're used to seeing today) that have been “drilled or planted,” while the second shows corn planted in hills.  Hill-planting was the old technique colonists learned from the Indians, so it’s interesting that it still finds its way into a manual from 1880.  That suggests that maybe the author was a practical farmer with lots of experience in the fields.