Monday, November 11, 2019

Were 19th Century Canadiens Bad Farmers?

Reading the usual literature about Franco-Americans one gets the impression that our Canadien forbears were bad farmers. The agricultural woes of the Saint Lawrence Valley in the 19th century are a ubiquitous theme, and bad farming is often mentioned in that context. Many such discussions describe a stock set of deficiencies said to have bedeviled the region’s agriculture.

For example, in his seminal book The French-Canadian Heritage in New England Gerard J. Brault writes,

The nineteenth-century Quebec farmer, like his New England counterpart, tilled the soil, planted, and harvested according to age-old custom and stubbornly resisted any change. He did not use manure or any other kind of fertilizer, kept turning over the same old top soil with a shallow plow, sowed unclean and unimproved seed, allowed weeds to grow everywhere, and knew nothing about crop rotation.1
A generation before Brault, agricultural historian Robert Leslie Jones gave a more detailed account of the alleged shortcomings of 19th c. French-Canadian farmers. Jones set these farmers against the background of the standard theory that Lower Canada (Québec) faced an agricultural crisis in the first half of the century. During this period, writes Jones,

Nothing the habitants could do, seemingly, promised economic salvation. By mid-century their situation had become one of chronic distress. Clergy, businessmen, newspaper editors, and politicians continually discussed it. They agreed in their analyses of the more obvious defects of agriculture in the St. Lawrence Valley – lack of fertilizing, lack of proper rotation, lack of approved stock-raising methods, lack of improved implements, too much concentration on wheat – but they showed much difference of opinion when they tried to account for these defects.2
The 19th c. French-Canadian farmer became a problem for “clergy, businessmen, newspaper editors, and politicians” to solve. It was not enough for them to make suggestions for improving the efficiency of farms. Elites also felt compelled to “account for these defects” in French-Canadian agriculture. The seigneurial system of land tenure was among the alleged causes of what Jones calls the bad farming of the French-Canadians” and the “backwardness of the seigneuries.” Others blamed overpopulation in the region, poor access to markets, and a lack of formal instruction in agriculture.

19th Century Habitants
19th c. Habitants: Bad Farmers?
Another reason Jones cites as “commonly given” for the supposed “backwardness” of Québec farming was the “ingrained conservatism of the habitants.” He invokes this alleged trait to impute the futility of government sponsored efforts toward agricultural education. Behind this conservative posture, says Jones, lurked “the spirit of French-Canadian nationalism.” “Dedicated as they were to the preservation of their laws, their language, and their religion,” Jones writes, “they resisted any change, however small, in their mode of life. It was this aversion to innovation which rendered the distress in the seigneuries so acute, and made it so difficult to ameliorate.”3

Thus the biggest problem with the 19th c. French-Canadian farmers, according to Jones, is that they were French-Canadian. For Jones, had they stopped being French-Canadian, i.e., had they ceased to remain a people distinct as to “their laws, their language, and their religion,” then they would have been more open to “innovation” and their agricultural deficiencies would not have been “so difficult to ameliorate.” Jones suggests that “French-Canadian nationalism,” i.e. the desire of the French-speaking person of Québec to remain such, was a major cause of their alleged “bad farming.”

The 1850 Report on Lower Canada’s Agriculture

One of the documents Jones relied upon was an 1850 report of a special committee on agriculture filed with the Legislative Assembly of Canada.4  This committee had the parliament's mandate to investigate the state of agriculture in Lower Canada, to make recommendations for its improvement, and to address the disposition of crown lands. The report includes many pages of expert testimony submitted in writing.

Report of the Special Committee on Agriculture for the Legislative Assembly of Canada (1850)
Report of the Special Committee on Agriculture
for the Legislative Assembly of Canada (1850)
The report identifies “three capital vices” in Lower Canadian agriculture: “One relates to manure, another to the rotation of crops, and the third to the raising of cattle.” Another defect is too much land sown with a single crop: wheat, the principle product for market. Poor drainage is also an often-cited problem.

But this report lacks hard data to compare Lower Canada’s agriculture with that of other regions of North America. The report assumes that Lower Canadian farming is in a bad state, and much worse off than the best European operations. However, what little data is cited shows that in 1831, when insects that had devastated other 19th c. harvests were not a factor, Lower Canada's wheat output per capita was marginally higher than Upper Canada’s (i.e. Ontario's) and much higher than that of the United States. Even if French-Canadian farmers could have markedly improved their yields by using better methods, in terms of production of the staple crop they held their own with other North Americans all things being equal.

U.S. Farmers – Equally As Bad?

If mid-19th century French-Canadian farmers were bad, then their U.S. counterparts were little better. U.S. farms were also beneath the bar set by European agriculture. And the very same defects that observers claimed impeded French-Canadian agriculture beset U.S. farmers as well.

Consider the 1864 report by Joseph C. G. Kennedy, produced under the auspices of the U.S. Secretary of the Interior based on data from the 1860 Federal Census.5  Although this document is mainly quantitative in character, as befits the author’s position as Superintendent of the census, it is the qualitative description of U.S. farming in Kennedy's introduction that is relevant to the present discussion.  

“It has been said that American agriculture is half a century behind that of Great Britain,” writes Kennedy. “Our land is not as thoroughly under-drained, manured, and cultivated as that of England, Scotland, or Belgium.” Kennedy cites an English journal’s prediction that the U.S. would become an importer rather than an exporter of grain due to the American's "scourging" system of agriculture that exhausted the land.

Replying to these criticisms, Kennedy unwittingly reveals the defects in U.S. farming. Conceding that poor farming methods had exhausted some lands, Kennedy writes,

That any of our so-called exhausted land can be speedily restored to its original fertility, we have abundant evidence. All that is necessary, is to cultivate the soil more thoroughly, under-drain where it is wet, sow less grain and more clover and grass, keep more stock, and make more and richer manure….
American agriculture is in a transition state. In the older-settled sections of the country there is much land that has been exhausted of its original fertility. Here the old system of farming, which was simply to raise all the grain that the land would produce, is no longer profitable. But yet some farmers, with that aversion to change for which they are everywhere proverbial, are slow to adopt an intelligent system of rotation and manuring, and cling to their old ways.6
Kennedy’s account shows that the alleged defects of at least "some" U.S. farmers were identical to those ascribed to their Lower Canadian counterparts. These defects, common to both countries, included poor fertilization, poor drainage, and inadequate rotation of crops; insufficient livestock; and sowing too much land with a single crop. The same “ingrained conservatism” Jones attributed to French-Canadian farmers Kennedy bestowed upon their U.S. colleagues. But where Jones made this conservatism a national trait of the French-Canadians, Kennedy attributes it to the occupation of the farmer. Clinging to old ways is, for him, an occupational hazard. He thought that farmers “everywhere” were averse to change.

Whereas the authors of the 1850 Canadian report, and latter-day scholars like Jones, fretted over the problem of the “ingrained" traits of the French-Canadian farmer, Kennedy pinned his hopes on a younger, can-do generation. “We must look to the intelligent young men of our country for any great improvement in its agriculture,” Kennedy writes. “Our young men are beginning to realize that agriculture is worthy [of] their highest ambition, and that in no other pursuit will intelligent labor meet with a surer reward.”

Same Facts – Different Frame

Nineteenth-century North American farming, in the U.S. and Canada alike, appears to have been less scientific than the cream of European agriculture. To explain the differences between the two continents, Kennedy observes that there was an abundance of cheap land on the western side of the Atlantic, but a shortage of farm labor. In much of Europe, every cultivable scrap had been cultivated long ago, and a dense population meant plenty of available farm workers. Geography and demography explain why North American farming was different from the European brand. North American farmers of the 19th c. had not yet thought to learn the best methods available in Europe because it hadn’t been in their interest to do so.
Dept. of Interior Report on U.S. Agriculture (1864). Based on 1860 U.S. Census
Kennedy's report on U.S. Agriculture (1864)

While official reports from the period suggest that the same deficiencies dogged both U.S. and French-Canadian farmers, the frame put around the former was optimistic, while observers depicted the outlook for the latter as decidedly glum. 

In contrast to the discourse around the habitants, the defects in U.S. farming were not personalized; modern farming was seen as a set of practices, more or less interchangeable from one farm to another, that a younger generation could learn as the need arose. Kennedy’s report sees U.S. farmers as rational actors who will respond effectively as prompted by self-interest. 

On the other hand, observers cast French-Canadian farmers as inertial, influenced to move, if at all, only from the outside. For Kennedy, solutions to the problems of U.S. farming were technical, while, for generations, discussions of French-Canadian agriculture tended to become sociological, for instance Jones's talk about "nationalism" and allegedly "ingrained" traits. Elites pondered not only a change in French-Canadian farming practices, but in the French-Canadians themselves. 

Were 19th century French-Canadians bad farmers? Perhaps by world-class standards but not by North American ones. Especially in the eastern parts of North America, Canadian and U.S. methods of farming, and the limitations of those methods, were not much different from one another. A similar set of facts prevailed in many rural regions of North America, but the frame elites and subsequent observers placed around those facts, depending on whether they were looking at U.S. or at Québec farmers, was markedly different.

Much more in my book:

A Distinct Alien Race: The Untold Story of Franco-Americans

1. Gerard J. Brault, The French-Canadian Heritage in New England (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1986), 52.

2. Robert Leslie Jones, "French-Canadian Agriculture in the St. Lawrence Valley, 1815-1850," Agricultural History 16, no. 3 (1942): 145-46.

3. Jones, 148.

4. Journals of the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada, Volume 9, Issue 2, 1850, Appendix T.T.

5. Joseph C. G. Kennedy, Agriculture of the United States in 1860, Compiled from the Original Returns of The Eighth Census, Under The Direction of the Secretary of the Interior (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1864).

6. Kennedy, x.

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