While lecturing in New England last winter, I met Scott Howell, an organic farmer working to sustainably coax crops out of soils very similar to the Chesapeake’s but in Maine’s difficult climate. Over lunch, the discussion turned to how early farmers on this continent tried to adapt the farming techniques of European agriculture, and Howell mused on what the past could teach us today.
Several years ago on a trip to the dump in Blue Hill, ME, Howell looked around for something interesting to take home. The bulldozer was pushing soil over the morning’s dumpings and there, ahead of the blade, he saw a couple of old books, yellowed with age. Howell grabbed them shortly before the bulldozer went over the site.
One book was an intact 18th century botanical that he gave to a friend.
The other was missing its cover boards, and he thought he would look it over, and then perhaps discard it. It was a second—the 1801—edition of John Beale Bordley’s 1799 “Essays and Notes on Husbandry and Rural Affairs,” a tome of more than 500 pages.
Bordley, a Maryland farmer, wrote in his preface: “On the turn of middle age…the author sat down on a farm in Maryland and became enthusiastically fond of husbandry.…and became more and more assured that great improvements might be made by professed farmers, in this first of all employments, if they could be brought to relinquish the worst of their habits.”
Bordley was one of the nation’s most famous and influential agriculturalists in his time, absorbing knowledge from fellow farmers here and abroad, observing the land, applying his knowledge to good effect and trying hard to communicate these discoveries and principles to others.
In Howell’s copy, intricate notes in quill pen and ink covered the margins, with little drawn hands pointing to indicate where a comment or insertion should be made. This book was inscribed “JBB, His Book” and Howell deduced it was Bordley’s own. The extensive comments were directed to his publisher, Thomas Dodson of Philadelphia, with the intent that another, improved edition be printed. Bordley died in 1810, though, and all of this new learning, revision and growth by one of the United States’ first agricultural gurus was never made public.
Howell had a treasure and the wisdom to recognize it.
Bordley was the son of Thomas Bordley, who had come from Yorkshire, England in 1694. By 1712, Thomas was attorney general of Maryland. He married twice, the second time to Ariana Vanderheyden, a granddaughter of Augustine Herrman, surveyor of the entire Chesapeake and one of the fathers of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal. (See “Past is Prologue,” January-February & March 2002.) John was born four months after his father’s death in 1727.
When his mother remarried, Bordley was unhappy enough that at the age of 10, he went to live with an uncle in Chestertown, MD, until he was 17. His schoolmaster was Charles Peale, father of U.S. painter Charles Wilson Peale.
In his teens, Bordley returned to Annapolis, lived with his half-brother Steven and studied law, his father’s profession. He was more intrigued, though, with the arts and sciences: history, philosophy, mathematics and—perhaps because of his great grandfather Herrman’s genes—surveying.
Subjected to a “hard school” of legal and philosophical readings by his half-brother Steven, Bordley prospered through his connections in Annapolis, although he longed to be elsewhere and closer to the land. He married Margaret Chew in 1750 and they moved north to Joppa, which, though a county seat, was then considered wild and rural.
Bordley held a lucrative clerkship, became a provincial court judge and served on the councils of two Maryland royal governors. His surveyor skills were put to use, when as a commissioner, he helped to determine the Maryland-Delaware border, a region surveyed by his great grandfather.
When Steven died in 1764, Bordley inherited the house that had been in his half-brother’s name.
Peale, the painter, was on very good terms with Bordley, who later in life, put together funding for him to travel abroad and study for two years under English master Benjamin West. Peale later painted four portraits of Bordley, and one of his two sons.
In 1770, Bordley’s wife, Margaret, inherited half of the Eastern Shore’s Wye Island. The other half went to her sister, wife of William Paca, later a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and governor of Maryland.
The Bordleys retained a house in Annapolis, but moved to Wye in Queen Anne’s County. Bordley spent many years developing his theory and philosophy of modern agriculture while living here. It has been said that he literally ran his own agricultural experiment station at Wye Island. His writings describe an orderly “Method of Registering Experiments…previously designed experiments…you register the process, the result and state the question and the answer; with what else occurs in a note.”
Bordley, to publicize his ideas and share insights he’d obtained from farmers elsewhere, sought to inform a public with very limited reading skills by publishing a series of broadsides, forerunners of today’s information posters.
Bordley’s holdings continued to increase. He bought the entirety of Poole’s Island in the upper Chesapeake and more farms on the mainland in Harford, Cecil and Kent counties. Farming on such a wide scale enabled him to conduct experiments and try innovative crop rotations on various soils and with different seed stocks, while still producing viable commercial crops.
He was not alone in this mission and many other gentlemen of the time were doing similar work on their lands. Thomas Jefferson’s son-in-law Thomas Mann Randolph, and agriculturalists John Taylor and Thomas Moore were all involved with this subject, but it was Bordley who wrote the books.
Bordley wrote: “The tobacco colonies were already more dependent [on England] than the bread colonies: and it was observable that as the culture of wheat, and the manufacturing it into flour travelled southward, from county to county through Maryland, the tobacco culture declined, and the people became more happy and independent of the British store keepers who had kept them in debt.” Grains, he said, were the “Best product of land: Best staple of Commerce.”
Bordley’s wharves at Wye Plantation were shipping wheat to England and Spain, earning him a small fortune.
When England enacted the Townsend Duties on vital imports to the colony, Bordley joined the resulting boycott on imported goods. Wye Plantation became all but self-sufficient. Brick was burnt from Chesapeake clays. He brewed his own beer and planted a vineyard. Coopers used local timber to make casks for the brew and wines. He made brine and then salt for preserving fish and meats from the Bay’s waters, and claimed that “Bay salt” was better than “blown” sea salt.
His household was dressed in cloth spun from locally grown fibers, especially hemp.
Bordley gave detailed recommendations on the “rotting” or softening of hemp stalks in water, their “scutching or swingling” (beating into fibers) and their “hackling” (combing) into grades of hemp. The first pulling of a comb through the fibers was for “country rope” or household cordage, the second for canvas-like sheeting or burlap and at the last and finest stage, excellent thread and linen. Using the example of a farmer with 20 acres, he stated that tobacco might produce 20 hogsheads worth $800, while one “might expect 12,000 or 16,000 pounds of hemp from the same ground, value 1,000 or 1,200 dollars.”
Hemp is also used to make paper. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew hemp; and the latter drafted the Declaration of Independence on hemp paper. Ben Franklin owned a hemp paper mill.
(Hemp, despite its value as a crop, has been somewhat of a pariah since the 1950s. This is because the good reputation of hemp—one of hundreds of varieties of the plant species, Cannabis sativa— has been overshadowed by another, more notorious, variety: marijuana. While these two plants are the same species, each has been developed for entirely different purposes: “industrial” hemp to maximize its fiber, seed and/or oil, and marijuana to maximize its psychoactive properties.
Modern varieties of industrial hemp are grown in Canada and the European Union. Hemp contains only minute amounts of the psychoactive chemical THC—not enough to produce a “high”— and contains another chemical that offsets the effects of THC. Many groups in the United States are lobbying for hemp to be widely grown because of its variety of useful products.)
Bordley’s philosophy was what would be called vertical integration today: The entire process is controlled from raw material to finished product. Once the craftsmen and supply chains are in place, this can be a very efficient system with tight control on virtually all of the costs. This system decreased, or outright eliminated the American Colonies’ dependence on the homeland, and was one of the factors in 1776 that led them to challenge British rule.
The late 18th century was a turbulent time. Bordley, who had set up his operation at Poole’s Island, was a major contributor to the Continental Army. British raids on the remote Eastern Shore forced Bordley to return to Annapolis.
The dire need of the Continental Army drove him back to the Eastern Shore to raise provisions in 1778. Because of battles between local militia and British-sympathizing Tories there, the Bordleys wintered thereafter in Philadelphia.
After the American Revolution ended in 1783, Bordley founded the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture, arguably his greatest contribution to the field. He actively served as its vice president until his death in 1810.
The changing economy of these United States dictated that—unlike tobacco agriculture—land could not be abandoned to go fallow or into forest after relatively few years of cropping. The nation needed cereal crops to feed its burgeoning population and increasingly large urban communities.
And, it needed these crops for international trade, so that the country’s still largely agrarian society could obtain desperately needed products and manufactured goods.
Land tilled for cereal crops needs very different treatment from the hand-hoed hillocks in which tobacco and subsequently corn were planted among the recent forest’s tree stumps.
Without the insights of today’s no-till agriculture, Bordley was a great proponent of plowing and working the land. His rectangular fields, plowed and manured on level coastal plains soils on terraces adjacent to the old Chesapeake rivers were less subject to erosion.
Land soon became a scarce commodity on the coastal plain, though. The borders of a neighbor’s property came up against those of one’s own, eliminating the earlier option of expanding into virgin territory. Bordley and contemporaries needed to farm the same land continuously. This prompted him to write: “But how great the injustice to the soil! To what a heartless, unproductive state it soon would be reduced!—This is what has ruined the fine lands in Maryland and Virginia—plowing much land, and selling off the produce without reparation to the soil.”
Elsewhere he wrote, “Pool’s Island I have long known” and presented anecdotal evidence: It had been cultivated for 120 years with only periodic years of rest. He believed that lands near the Bay (river terraces) were more fertile than those inland, something Native Americans had intuitively discovered a thousand years before.
Meanwhile, population pressure drove people onto the piedmont, and into hilly country, and soil erosion became a problem.
Joppa(towne), where Bordley’s early fortunes were cemented, had been an active seaport exporting agricultural products but fell into disuse as eroding soils from its watershed filled the river channel. Stone blocks to which vessels were once moored can be found today in the tangled brush and woodlands bordering a now shallow and sluggish stream.
Bordley was not ignorant of erosion. In his maize fields, he planted rows 7 feet apart, with a furrow next to the stalks to channel and conserve rainfall. He also recommended planting a grain crop or clover in the spaces between rows, stating that harvesting one would only minimally damage the other. He wrote of “drilling” in bean crops with a wheeled device, “With such an instrument beans were drilled for me, at Wye.” Today, seed drill planting is a component of no-till farming.
Plowing, he wrote, conditioned the soil if it did not thus become too dry, and gave porosity for it to “imbibe” rain. It was also was his method of incorporating manure in the soil
Today, there is a vast excess of animal wastes from confined feeding operations for cattle, hogs and poultry, but in Bordley’s time, there was never enough dung, and confining livestock was the means of collecting and conserving this valuable material.
“Manuring” also included a variety of other soil improvements, such as adding gypsum and marls. Writing about the Eastern Shore, he noted: “In the extensive country of the peninsula of Chesapeake, there is no appearance of calcarious matter in the soil.” He tested this, and found that the soil did not effervesce when treated with acid. His remedy was to plow in calcareous materials like oyster shell from Native American middens which had been accumulating over thousands of years. Heaven only knows what extraordinary archaeological resources must have been thus scattered indiscriminately! But it was one approach to the liming of soils in spring, and is still done today.
He also had the insight that “manuring” was returned to the soil by rain—“The ground may be partly restored from constant though slow deposits from the atmosphere, rather than from the dung dropt”— thus foreshadowing today’s understanding of atmospheric deposition. Without the benefit of laboratory chemical analysis, he also understood something about “nitre” (nitrogen) in soil.
Bordley also hit on some of the keys for sustaining yields on repeatedly cropped fields. He recognized that some crops like “maize and tobacco impoverish ground greatly.” On fallow land that reverted to woodland, he noted that the locust tree, in particular, helped to rebuild soil fertility.
“Some plants receive most of their food at their roots…Other plants succeeding these, may receive it more…from the atmosphere. …The peculiar nature and fitness of the food which different kinds of plants require must be adapted to the absorbing faculties and…structure of the vessels of plants.”
A bit obscure, but without knowledge of organic chemistry and the role of Rhizobacterium and Nitrobacter nodules, he was close. He realized that rotating cereal (maize, wheat and other grains) with legumes, (he chose clover, Trifolium, among others) would naturally amend the soil for the next crop and although he had a feeling for the fixing of atmospheric nitrogen into the soil, he did not quite understand it.
He goes on for pages with experimental series of rotations. Today’s rotation of corn and soybeans is a distant extension of Bordley’s ideas.
Bordley’s book is full of insight about the late 18th and early 19th century life around the Chesapeake. He includes recipes for salt herring, fresh fruit ice cream, and managing “chinches” (biting bugs). He also noted which method is color safe for the finest silk.
He was also a proponent of hiring labor, and not using slaves, a practice that he believed equally enslaved the slaveholder.
This work was his attempt to communicate with what passed for gentry of that time. This was a circle of literate gentlemen farmers and correspondents—often very well read in Greek and Latin, music and the classics—who were amassing the knowledge and inventiveness that was to run this nation for the next century.
It was Bordley’s expectation that they would transmit this knowledge more widely and to the poorest of farmers. And indeed, it was work that later provided the shoulders upon which modern agriculture would eventually stand.