Monday, August 6, 2012

What Did We Do Before Wonder Bread? - Part 2

By: Adrienna Maxwell, Farm Programs Intern

Back in the 1840s, New York State was one of the top producers of wheat in the country.

To first put things into perspective, it is helpful to look at wheat consumption on an individual level. The average family size at this time was six people. It is difficult to know exactly how much bread individuals consumed. In 1875, in calculating how much flour would need to be traded to Sweden, the U.S. Department of State calculated that a person required about .67 lbs of bread per day. Using that number, the average family of six in the 1840s would consume 4 lbs of bread daily, and 1460 lbs (or about 30 bushels) in a year! In 1845 the average acre in Otsego County (which includes Cooperstown, NY) produced 13 bushels of wheat. That means that families would have to grow just over 2.3 acres of wheat every year to feed just one family. That’s not even accounting for saving seed for the following year or selling seed to millers for profit! Thanks to Jenna Peterson, former Farm Programs Intern, for crunching these numbers.
We have a small demonstration plot of wheat behind the hop house here on the Lippitt Farmstead. It was planted by hand, and then furrowed in by our draft horse, Zeb, and the farmers. This plot is only about 1/18th of an acre, which means a family of six would need to grow over 41 times this amount of wheat!
So how did they harvest all this wheat and get it from field to table in the mid 19th century?

Farmers had about ten days at the end of the wheat growing season to harvest the grain before it would separate from the stalk and fall to the ground. They would use a scythe or a grain cradle to cut the stalks and then they would bundle the stalks together into sheaves to take to the barn, where the bundles would be spread out on the threshing floor. Up through the 1800s, threshing (the separation of wheat kernel from stalk and chaff) was done by using a flail to beat the stalks. This allows the grain to separate from the stalks. The winnowing basket would be used to toss the grain into the air, at which point the cross breeze coming through the correctly situated barn would blow the chaff away and leave the kernels. However, with this method some dirt and unwanted debris would still remain and have to be picked out by hand. Another option for threshing grain at this time was to have a team of oxen trample the stalks on the threshing floor, and then use the winnowing basket. Either way, it was hard, time-consuming work.

In this picture, the flail is on the left and the winnowing basket is on the right. These items are hanging in Brooks Barn at The Farmers’ Museum and are used for demonstrations, especially during Harvest Festival (which will be September 15th and 16th in 2012). 
The fanning mill was invented to replace the winnowing basket, sometime between the late 1700s and the early 1800s. This separated the grain from the chaff much more easily than it could be done by hand, and as technology progressed the fanning mill had more sieves added to it and became horse powered and such to make the process even faster.
A view of our fanning mill from the end where the grain and chaff is separated. The grain falls through and the chaff is blown away by the fan blades when the machine is being cranked. 
A full side view of our fanning mill, with a glimpse of the fan blades. This is also resting in Brooks Barn, so stop by and take a look! 
Most of the grain produced in this state in the 1840s was concentrated in the Genesee Valley, as mentioned in the previous post I wrote on this topic; it was then ground into flour in large mills in Rochester and shipped eastward along the Erie Canal, which had opened by 1825.

Wheat was a major product in New York State from the time of early settlement through the creation of the Erie Canal and westward crawling railroads. The Genesee Valley was once known as the “Granary of the Country” and Rochester as “Flour City”. So what happened? Why is wheat no longer a major crop of New York State?

As with the movement of most crops, it was a combination of factors. By the end of the 1700s, farmers were already battling a fungal disease called black stem-rust which was prevalent in any place that wheat had long been cultivated. By 1830 the Hessian fly and the midge fly had both wrought severe destruction on the eastern part of the state’s wheat crop, and production had all but ceased to exist in those regions until about a decade later, when the farmers finally figured out how to fight off these pests. And with the creation of the Erie Canal, it became much easier for farmers from the Midwest to grow wheat and ship flour east.

By the end of 1860, New York and Pennsylvania had fallen from the top production spots, and were replaced by Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin. The New York State growers held on for awhile because of New York City’s ever increasing demand for grains, but eventually almost all wheat production in the state came to an end. In 2009, New York State was 32nd in the country for wheat production, though there has been some recent movement to grow organic wheat in New York. If you are interested in learning more about that, I suggest plugging “Northeast Organic Wheat Project” into your Google search bar. You might just be surprised!

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