How the Farm Pays
by William Crozier and Peter Henderson, 1902
The SFJ library owns a lovely old leather volume, “How the Farm Pays” which features a curious and thought-provoking treatise on farming 100 years ago. We offer the introductory remarks, originally presented as an interview of the authors, here for your review. Hope you find this as interesting and useful as we have. SFJ
TRAINING FOR THE BUSINESS OF FARMING
QUESTION. What, in your opinion, Mr. Crozier, are the chances of making a farm pay, if the owner is unable to superintend it himself, and has to rely on the knowledge of hired superintendence? This is a question that has been asked me scores of times each season, in regard to the business of market gardening, and my unvarying reply has been, that the chances for success are all against the person undertaking such a business under such conditions.
ANSWER. I am inundated with the same sort of inquiries, and am glad to have an opportunity of making a general reply. I entirely coincide with your opinion, that no man should attempt farming, or gardening, in the hope of making it a profitable business, unless he is willing and able to take hold with his own hands and employ his own brains in the work. I have known of many who have made large investments in farming and stock raising, but have never known one instance where the owner who failed to take an active part in the work ever made it a success. It is unreasonable to expect it. If you or I took it into our heads to engage in the dry goods or grocery business, and put our hands in our pockets and trusted entirely to the knowledge, honesty and energy of a hired manager to run the business, it is certain that these pockets would soon be empty if their supply was dependent upon the profits. But the educated city merchant, doctor, lawyer or parson is apt to look upon the tillers of the soil as a slow, ignorant, unlettered class, destitute of business capacities, and often deludes himself with the belief that his want of knowledge of rural affairs will be more than compensated by his advantages of education or business experience, when he concludes to engage in farming. This delusion draws hundreds from the city to the farm, to their ruin, every year. The only true way for a man who has previously been engaged in other business, and who wishes to become a farmer, is to get the privilege of taking active hold of the work, under the instruction of some farmer who has made the business a success. Twelve months thus spent with energy and application, would give him a knowledge from which a reasonable chance of success might be expected, always provided he has the elements of success within himself. But this advice is only applicable to young men. It would be folly for men of middle age or past it to make the attempt. In this connection I may cite a very marked case, and one which gives me a very pleasing remembrance. Dr. Shann, of York, England, wrote to me some twelve years ago, asking me to take his son, a young man of twentyone, who had just completed a college course at Cambridge. I agreed to his proposal, and the young fellow duly appeared one morning, very unlike the ideal farmer indeed, dressed in the latest fashion and cane in hand. I much feared to look at him, that he would not be a success at the plow; but after allowing him to prospect around for a few days, I told him that the contract between his father and me required that he should take hold and obey order the same as my ordinary hired men. He at once went down to the village, rigged himself out with a pair of overalls, flannel shirt and strong boots, and announced himself ready. His first initiation to work was assisting to wash a herd of Berkshire pigs shoulder to shoulder with a rough Irishman. From this point I saw that he was made of the right stuff, and placed him during the year and a half that he was with me through all the grades of our work. He was so energetic and trustworthy, that after he had been with me a year, I entrusted him to take a lot of cattle, sheep and swine to the State Fair at Atlanta, Georgia, with permission to sell all if he deemed the price sufficient. This he did to my entire satisfaction. While there he saw a farm which his father purchased and stocked for him, and today he is one of the most successful farmers, perhaps, in Georgia.
(Mr. H.) I have always some five or six such men in my employment who have come to learn the finer parts of Horticulture. They come to us at a younger age than would be suitable for the heavier work of the farm, usually from fifteen to sixteen, and I select all by the merit of their letters of application, for I hold, that with the advantages of education which our school system affords, if a boy at sixteen has not had ambition enough to be able to write intelligently at that age, the chances are that he is not likely to become an intelligent workman; and for an apprentice we want nothing else, as we can get all the hewers of wood and drawers of water we want, at our doors; but brains are not so easily obtained. But with all our care in selecting, not more than one in ten ever attains to any prominence, and such usually develop superiority from the first. About ten years ago I received an application from a boy living in one of the suburbs of New York. He said that he was sixteen, and his letter was so terse and to the point that I told him to call. When he made his appearance he looked so small and slight that I told him I thought our work would be too heavy for him. He begged to be allowed to try. He was started at $3.00 per week, but before he was twenty years of age, his energy, intelligence and untiring industry made his services so valuable, that I paid him a salary of $1,200 per year, which was more than I paid my foreman, a man of forty, who had been at the business for twenty years. But I could not keep the young man even at that. He had saved money enough to start on his own account, and is now on the straight road to fortune. But there are few similar cases in my experience of over twenty years with such youths. I have only had one other instance of the kind, but many of them have made fairly successful business men, and scores of graduates from our establishment are now engaged in the florist and market garden business in all parts of the country.
Q. What is your opinion of the value of agricultural colleges, Mr. Henderson, as training schools in the ranches of farming or gardening?
A. I am afraid my opinion is too pronounced on this subject to be agreeable to the directors of some of these institutions. That they might be made the very best mediums for such a purpose I have not the least doubt, if the directors would only be convinced that the superintendents, to be successful, must have an actual practical working experience varied and extended enough to make them master of the subject. But thus far I have good reason to believe that few of them have such men. The great trouble is that they fritter away the time of the students on abstruse and practically useless theoretical studies, wasting life in attempting to get at the often doubtful causes for the attainment of important results in the so-called science of agriculture; which, after all, with all the help of Liebig, and other such men, is almost entirely ignored by the farmers and gardeners who are the kings in those industries today both in Europe and America.
I will here repeat the views I expressed in the Rural New Yorker in May, 1883, in a discussion of this question.
“The longer I live, the less I believe in the value attached to the so-called science of agriculture. I believe that a fairly educated youth would have far better chances for success in life if the four or six years spent under the different professors of an agricultural college (as they are generally conducted) were spent in actual work of ten hours a day in a well conducted farm or garden. The work might not be so pleasant, and his manners might not have the polish that friction with scholastic minds might give, but he would be better fitted for the battle of life.
“There is awful humbug about many parts of the so-called Science of Agriculture. The ‘Agricultural Chemist’ analyzes the soil and finds that it contains, or does not contain, certain elements which must be withheld, or put in, in fertilizing. He analyzes cabbage, corn, potatoes, wheat, turnips, oranges, lettuce, strawberries, roses and a score of other genera of plants, and makes a special formula of a fertilizer for each. Every intelligent, practical farmer, with ten years’ experience, knows that this is utter nonsense; and yet, in not a few of our agricultural colleges, these special fertilizers, for special purposes, are religiously adopted. If, in the schools for instruction in agriculture, the lessons were given in the field, instead of, as now, in the college, we might then look for different results.
“When a boy, I was a pupil in a country school in Scotland. It was the time when Captain Berkley, and other sprigs of the English aristocracy, made the science of pugilism fashionable, and many of the sons of the better class of British yeomen took lessons in the ‘science.’ One of these, one day, landed at Edinburgh as a pupil at our country school. He was an aggressive fellow and a great blower, and in a few days he succeeded in making most of us stand in fear and awe of his wonderful ‘science.’ But one day another new boy came, a blacksmith’s son, who had occasionally taken a hand with the sledge-hammer, a quiet, retiring lad, whom the bully thought a good subject to force a quarrel upon. It was accepted quicker than he anticipated. In a few minutes the young blacksmith had given him a thorough thrashing. He blubbered and admitted he was whipped, but said the fight had not been a fair one, for ‘that boy had not fought according to science.’ Maybe he had not, but he came out victor, nevertheless. It is true that the graduates of West Point proved some of the best generals during the late war, but it must not be forgotten that the training there is but the rehearsing of actual war, except the bloodshed — practical work, all of it – call it science, if you please. ‘The tree is known by its fruits,’ and if ever the day comes that the graduates of our agricultural colleges become the leaders — the generals in agriculture and horticulture — then the advocates of these institutions will be justified in glorifying themselves; but while the representative farmers come (as they almost exclusively now do) from the ranks of the hard-handed workers in old mother earth, the agricultural community will look with doubtful approval on the agricultural colleges, as now conducted, as a means of instruction.”
Q. From your business as a breeder of fancy stock, Mr. Crozier, you must have had many opportunities of judging whether the hundreds of gentlemen farmers, as they are called, make their ventures pay in money in the long run?
A. I do not, of my own knowledge, recall a single instance where such men have ever got their original investments back, although many of them, having competent overseers, are handling their fancy stock in a manner which, if energetically followed up as a business, ought to pay them nearly as well as we farmers who have to make our living by it. But there is another element that compensates, outside of any money return, and that is that it is a healthful recreation, a safety-valve, so to speak, from the perplexities of business with which the merchant or professional man is visited. A well known New York gentleman at the head of one of the largest corporations there, in speaking with me the other day about this matter, said that his original investment in fancy stock on his farm and gardens was upwards of $100,000, and that it cost him to maintain them nearly $40,000 annually; but he said that the recreation he enjoyed from such an investment, which he could well afford, in all probability would add ten years to his life. The advantage gained by men of wealth in indulging in such an occupation, instead of in paintings or other works of art, is, that before they can view their treasures, they must get out into the open air and sunshine, which is a valuable factor to take into account along with the pleasures of the pursuit.
(Mr. H.) I suppose you will agree with me in believing that the first subject, and by all odds the most important factor, of success in farming, is the soil. This must ever be, other things being equal, the fundamental element of success. While in Europe a few years ago, on an extended tour in Great Britain and the Continent, I observed that although the lands in all these regions had been cultivated probably for five hundred years, wherever the soil was naturally fertile there were found good farm buildings, good fences, horses, wagons and harness, everything to indicate prosperity. On the other hand, wherever a poor, sterile soil predominated, there were found farm buildings, fences and cattle that indicated poverty. As well may a stage coach attempt to compete with a locomotive, as a farmer owning poor and sterile land with the owner of a rich, fertile soil, if they sell their products in the same market. It is a delusive belief, that manuring or tillage, no matter how good, will ever bring a poor, thin soil into permanent fertility, unless the application of manure is yearly continued; for no ordinary amount of manuring or cultivation will maintain the fertility of any soil over two years, as it will then either have been taken up by the crops growing on it, or else have been washed down below the depth at which the roots penetrate. It requires some extent of practical experience to know what is a good soil. I well remember a blunder that I made in my early experience in this matter. My partner and I, when we started business in Jersey City, N.J., had both been regularly bred as horticulturists, partly in Europe and partly here, and yet on our first purchase of lands for market garden purposes in Hudson County, N.J. – which borders on New York City – we made a mistake in our selection, and no amount of the highest culture, although that is now thirty years ago, has ever been able to bring the soil into what would be termed even second-rate condition. The error we made was in selecting a soil apparently good, but which was underlaid by a stratum of clay ten inches below the surface; and today, with all our draining and subsoiling and every known means of culture, it is impossible for us to raise crops as good as those half a mile away where the subsoil is of porous sand. I mention this to show the importance of selecting, whenever practicable, a suitable soil for all operations, whether of the farm or of the garden; for had it not been by an accident of circumstance, that our lands became valuable from their proximity to the city, our unfortunate purchase would have ruined us. Now, Mr. Crozier, with these preliminary remarks in relation to soil, let me ask: What are the general characteristics of the soil here on your farm, on which you have been so successful in raising the various root and other crops?
A. It is a sandy loam in some places and gravelly loam in others; the sandy loam runs from ten to fifteen inches in depth, and the subsoil is a mixture of loam and sand. The gravelly soil is about ten inches in depth, with a subsoil which runs into a fine sand, similar to that which the sandy loam overlies.
Q. Have you ever had any experience with adhesive soils overlying clay, and what has been your success with such soils, and with what crops?
A. I have had good success with oats, rye, barley and turnips; but for mangels, carrots, or other deep-rooted root crops, the lighter soil is preferable.
Q. If the subsoil is perfectly free from water, I presume you will agree with me in believing that the more level the land is, the better?
A. In this climate I would say yes.
Q. Why not in any climate?
A. Because in Europe, for instance, they have a wetter climate, with less sunshine than we have here, and crops such as oats, barley and wheat could be better harvested on ridge lands than on level surfaces.
Q. Yes, I am aware of the greater moisture of the European climate, although we have more rain in the year here; but my question related more to the choice of lands that are level, such as some of the prairies; or rolling, as in districts of Pennsylvania, New York and Ohio — I mean, if the soil is of equal fertility, which would you consider preferable — a slightly rolling, or a level soil?
A. I should prefer the level soil — that is, always providing the water passes away freely. It depends, however, upon the purpose for which the farm is wanted. If for general farming purposes, then, I should say by all means the level land would be best; but if the farm is used for pasturing or grazing, rolling land would be preferable, because cattle will always do better on the slope of hills than they will do on flats.
Q. Do you know the reason of their doing better, or is your opinion simply derived from observation and general practice?
A. I think that there is more change of herbage, and it is sweeter and finer, on the hill-sides, than in the flat lands, where it is too rich.
Q. In that you are probably correct; and this, too, you consider would be true of almost every other crop, as well as grasses?
A. Yes; sorghum grown on a hill-side will produce from the same amount of juice one-third more sugar than if grown on bottom lands, and the same principle will be found to be carried through nearly all kinds of vegetation. Melons and grapes that have been planted on rolling ground are always richer in flavor, because they contain more sugar than those on the bottom land.
Q. What has been your experience with land composed of peat or vegetable mold?
A. I have always considered it to be the best land for root crops. You can grow a larger quantity of roots such as mangels, beets, turnips or potatoes on such land, with less labor and less manure, than on any other soil; provided always that the subsoil is free from water.
Q. Have you ever experienced any difficulty in breaking up land of this kind for crops grown the first season?
A. Yes; on two occasions in my experience in breaking up land of this character, even when thoroughly turned, there was some acidity in the soil that destroyed the roots. Lime would have counteracted all that trouble, if thoroughly mixed with the soil at the rate of fifty to three hundred bushels per acre; for market gardens or other lands where it can be afforded, the larger quantity would be preferable.
Q. Do not swamp lands vary very much in character; and should their treatment not be in accordance with this variation?
A. These lands do vary; some consist wholly of peat or vegetable matter, and some have a large proportion of sand in them. The former kind is much improved by the addition of sand or gravel; the latter kind is benefited by a mixture of clay.
Q. Would you consider lime indispensable if sand, or gravel, or clay could be had?
A. Yes, I should say by all means to put on lime, no matter how little of it; the clay or loam can be better dispensed with.
(Mr. H.) I have had only one experience in my life with a swamp of that kind, and, probably for want of using the means you now advise, I failed completely the first year. I had turned up the swamp land in the fall, thoroughly drained it, and thought it was in perfect condition for a crop. I planted the first crop with cabbages, but failed completely; I turned it up again and planted it with celery, which was equally a failure, although I had used nearly twenty-five tons per acre of manure for each crop. To all appearances there was nothing in the handling or condition of the soil that would indicate any element injurious to vegetation.
Q. What depth of soil was it?
A. It was probably three feet deep, overlying a fine white sand. The next season, and for some years after, by heavy manuring, but still without lime, we had good crops, although from my past experience on other lands, and from what you say about the effect of lime when first used for swamp land, I have no doubt it would have greatly helped such a soil. I had an opportunity of examining the soil of Florida last winter, which I believe is very nearly identical with that of Vineland, N.J., and was astonished to see the fertility which land apparently little else but sand contained. This goes to confirm the opinion that I have long held about soils, that their mechanical condition — that is, the ease with which roots can push deeply into them — has much to do in producing good crops when great depth of that soil exists.
In your opinion, Mr. Crozier, which is best fitted to retain barnyard manure — an adhesive soil with a clayey bottom, a loam with a sandy or gravelly bottom, or well drained swamp land with a sandy bottom?
A. A heavy land with a clay subsoil will retain manure twice as long as any other soil. But it would depend altogether on what purpose the land was used for. If for permanent grass, there is no land will retain manure so long as stiff soils with clayey subsoils. I have known it to be kept forty years without being plowed, by applying an occasional top dressing of either barn-yard manure or a compost made of loam and lime. The best loam for such purposes is that taken from fence rows, because it contains rich fibrous sod.
Q. About what quantity of such a compost would you consider a good top dressing per acre?
A. About twenty two-horse wagon loads.
Q. How much stable manure would you advise for a dressing on such land?
A. About ten wagon loads. I would say, however, that stable manure should not be put on unless over a year old or composted and worked up fine, as coarse manure is not suitable for permanent grass lands.
Q. What season of the year do you consider the best for putting on top dressing for permanent grass lands?
A. I think the fall is the best time. If put on in the fall it protects the roots of the grass from freezing and thawing, acting as a mulch, and also by freezing it is made fine for the harrow in the spring to work it into the roots of the grasses.
Q. What harrow do you use for such a purpose?
A. I use the square iron-tooth harrow or diamond chain harrow, which latter is now coming into use among some of our best farmers in this country. The common sloping tooth harrow does this work very well, and so does that useful new implement, the Acme harrow.
Q. On sandy loam lands, what do you consider the most profitable way to apply barn-yard manure for general crops?
A. I have found in my experience that the best way is to plow the land, spread the manure broadcast, harrow it, and plow again two or three inches deep. The nearer the top of the ground we keep the manure, so long as it is covered, the more benefit the crops will receive from it, and the manure of course will always work downwards, from the rains. The general practice of farmers in the United States is to spread the manure, and then plow it under.
(Mr. H.) Your practice in this respect is certainly good and is entirely new to me; it shows the benefit of a personal interchange of ideas on these subjects. I am satisfied that your plan of harrowing the manure on the surface before plowing it in lightly, as just described, must be of great benefit, although in my thirty-five years’ experience as a market gardener, and living in a section where there are scores of others, many of whom have had a practice as extended as mine, I have never yet seen it done. It is obvious that no matter how well manure may be rotted, still when spread on the land it will form hard lumps, less or more, unless broken up by the harrow as you describe, while the disintegration of other particles by the harrow will leave it just in the condition necessary for the food of plants.
Is there any guide, Mr. Crozier, by which inexperienced men, without any one to help them can determine what is the best soil for general farm work?
A. If the farm is to be selected on lands where there has been general cultivation, the best test to determine the value of such lands is to closely examine and compare the crops growing on lands adjacent. If under ordinary culture you see these lands producing good crops of corn, wheat or potatoes, it is reasonable to suppose, if on the same level, that the land in question will, in all probability, be of similar quality.
But suppose the farm has to be selected in a region where there is nothing but timber or the natural grasses to guide? What then would be your advice?
A. Under such circumstances I would take a spade and dig in different parts of the farm and find out what the soils and subsoils are composed of, and what they would be best adapted for. The timber and native grasses growing on such lands would not always help to decide as to the quality of the land. There would be no safety in judging from such indications, as we find sometimes heavy timber growing on lands not well fitted for farm operations, and even some lands on which the natural grasses seem to be poor, will under proper cultivation produce excellent crops. So that in such cases, if there are no cultivated crops growing in the vicinity, the only thing is an examination of the soil by digging into it with a spade. For this reason, it will be advisable, if a disinterested and capable practical farmer can be found, for any one about to invest five or ten thousand dollars in a farm, to employ such a man to guide him in the choice of the soil. Of course the object for which the farm is wanted must be stated to the expert, whether it be wanted for grazing purposes only, or for rotation of crops, or for what is known as mixed farming, which combines stock raising and general tillage. If the selection be a good one it is reasonable to expect fair success with ordinary industry, while if it is bad, failure and ruin will in all probability be the result.
(Mr. H.) I have scores come to me in the course of every season for advice in this matter of soils, but in most instances the advice is asked too late. Many persons have been unfortunate enough to buy or rent land that they had been led to believe was excellent, but only “run down.” In my opinion, this widespread notion of “exhausted lands” is, to a great extent, a fallacy, and that the greater part of the lands said to have been exhausted never were good; and no power on earth short of spreading a good soil over them, half a foot thick, would ever make them good. In a recent visit to the South, I met a man who had gone down four years ago, and had bought an “exhausted farm.” With Northern energy and Northern capital he hoped to restore it to what he had been told it had previously been — a fertile farm. A large expenditure and the hard work of several years had failed to give a crop of corn that paid for the labor. I could see no stalk that had been more than five feet high, and many of them less than that. The poor, yellow soil in no place exceeded four inches in depth, and was underlaid by a hard-pan of clay. The labor put upon such a soil will never pay. Millions of acres of lands are purchased annually which are of but little more use for farming purposes than the same area in a barren wilderness. Then, it may be asked, How is a farmer to select his soil? First, he should never buy a farm without personal examination — never take the seller’s word about it; he may honestly believe that what he asserts is true, or he may know it to be false; but in either case if you are deceived you suffer. Make the examination thorough; observe the surroundings, and if the district is settled and cropped. Examine with care the condition of crops on the farm and those upon land adjoining it. If the crops are sickly looking and weak — if the corn-stalks, instead of being seven or eight feet in height, are but two or three — you had better lose your time and expenses and get home again, than take the farm as a gift. If there are no crops growing, the character of the soil will be indicated by its appearance. A good soil is usually of dark brown color; the subsoil, lying immediately under the top soil, should be of a porous nature, and it is usually, in first-rate soils, of a yellowish, sandy loam. A gravelly subsoil is often found underlying soils of good quality, but this is not so common. A subsoil of blue or yellow clay, such as might be used for brick making and that is impervious to water, when near the surface, is a certain indication of a poor quality of soil for either farming or gardening. As an illustration of the value of different soils for market garden purposes, there are men in our immediate neighborhood who pay $100 per acre annual rent, and who, in the past ten or twelve years, have made snug little fortunes upon eight or nine acres in cultivation. Not more than half a mile away there are others paying less than half that amount in rent, who have in the same time been struggling to make both ends meet. Though equally industrious, and having as good a knowledge of the business, their failure has resulted simply from the difference in the character of the soil. In the one case the land would be cheaper at $100 per are annual rent than the other would be if it could be had for nothing.
(Mr. C.) A farm suited for mixed farming is safer than when the farm is devoted, as in some cases, to growing exclusive one crop — safer because you are not thus compelled to carry all your eggs in one basket. If the season is wet and cold, the grass crop will respond to it, although your corn crop may fail, and vice versa. Stock raising, in connection with tillage, compels the raising of root and forage crops, some of which will always prove profitable under proper management, no matter how the seasons or the markets vary. It also has the advantage of allowing the farmer to keep the most of his hands during the entire year. In the vicinity of towns or villages, summer boarding houses, or hotels, the growing of the finer vegetables or fruits, in addition to the regular farm crops, will always prove profitable. A single acre of fruit or vegetables when sold direct to the consumer, will often yield more profit than an entire farm of one hundred acres. But you, Mr. Henderson, who have had such ample experience in these subjects, will append to this work brief and plain instructions of how to do it.
Q. You are aware of the fact, I suppose, Mr. Crozier, that it is currently believed in the Southern States, and probably in other parts of the country, that lands are exhausted almost irreparably by the continued growing of tobacco or other exhaustive crops on them. I would like to hear what is your opinion on this matter. To give you my own opinion in advance, I believe it is a fallacy to a great extent.
A. I should say that continual planting of one crop on the same soil will impoverish it until it becomes worthless.
Q. Do you mean permanently worthless?
Q. That is just the point I wish to make — that the injury to the land is only temporary.
A. Yes; and by judicious cropping with grasses or clovers the land may again be brought up to its former fertility. The reason for the popular opinion in this matter, and which I believe has led to a great deal of unnecessary loss, is that when such lands are first broken up, they will produce good crops with very little or no manure, because the plants have the roots of the grasses, leaves or other organic matter to feed upon, but when this supply of plant food is exhausted, without a corresponding amount of manure being again applied, the land is robbed of nearly all the fertility which it had, in the first two or three years after being broken. That I think is the true cause of this widespread belief that has allowed thousands of acres of land to lie waste.