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Planting the Fields

sheep in field 1850

June 19, 2018

Spring has given way to summer early at Living History Farms. While April was cold, May was hot, filling our spring planting season with 90 degree days. Despite the early heat, we have enjoyed the simple pleasures of planting fields. The peculiar weather has also given us more appreciation for the worry that farming families face and how much changes in technology have allowed farmers to adapt.

The 1850 Pioneer Farm staff has put in a nice crop of wheat, planted with a hand-held broadcast seeder. Thanks to the warm weather it is already showing signs of “heading out”. Like their 19th century predecessors, LHF farmers have taken pleasure in seeing this field come up and begin to ripen. With every early June summer storm, they have also shared that historic worry of “what will wind do to the wheat?” and “did hail hurt the field?” The sheep aren’t really helping either.

At the 1900 era Horse-Powered Farm, the hay and oats are looking quite well. For both of these crops, our farmers were able to seed with grain drills pulled by a combination of horses and historic mid-20th century tractors. This allows the interpreters to plant a slightly larger demonstration field, but doesn’t lessen their worries about rain, wind, and hail. These farm interpreters have spent most of June dodging storms to get their first cuttings of hay out of the field and into the barn!

corn in 1850 fieldCorn crops across the museum are also planted and growing. The Pioneer Farm’s open pollenated corn—a mix of Improved King Phillip and Hickory King varieties, is growing well. Some of the plants are waist high or better.

Open-pollenated corn varieties, unlike modern hybrids, have not been scientifically bred for any particular disease resistance or yield abilities. These varieties are also not able to receive herbicides the way modern “Round Up Ready” varieties can. This means a lot more work for the farmer! In 1850, corn was planted with hand held planters, like this one in LHF’s historic artifact collection.

hand held corn planter

Then, farmers went through the corn fields with a hoe and removed weeds. This was one of the determining factors in farm size. A pioneer farmer may have purchased 80 or even 120 acres of land, but he was likely cultivating less than 40 acres of that total. In 1850, it is estimated that growing one acre of corn involved an average of 40 man hours in planting, cultivating, and harvesting. Our demonstration corn field at the pioneer farm is less than 3 acres and that means a lot of walking around with a hoe in 90 degree heat!

farmers working in 1850 field

The 1900 Farm has a bigger field, but this year that just seems to mean fighting weeds on an even bigger scale. The 1900 era farmers also planted historic open-pollenated corn, a mix of Reid’s Yellow Dent and Silver King.

corn at 1900

Their field is planted in check rows—wide spaced rows that can be cultivated in both directions by horse-drawn machinery. A field cultivator pulled with horses could manage to weed 7.3 acres on average in a 10 hour work day. By 1940, tractors pulling a cultivator could cover an average of 19.3 acres in a 10 hour work day. This is a great improvement, if a farmer can manage to get into the field! The heat and intermittent rain is causing havoc for us! The field has been too muddy to get into with a cultivator, but hot weather is kicking the weeds into high gear. Replanting areas choked or drowned out have been impossible, due to our wet field conditions.

modern fieldOur museum interpreters are sighing and shaking their heads as they look at a neighbor’s field of modern hybrid corn with its close spaced rows and weed resistance. They take comfort in diaries that remind them the historic 1900 farmer faced the same issues. In 1901, Iowa farmer Thomas Terrill wrote in his diary: “April 30, 1901. We both plowed in south field. It got too wet up here. We have to hunt the high places to plow as the low ground is still wet.” Summer planting and weeding are turning out to be full of work, but the farmers tell me that a well weeded acre of cornfield is indeed a simple pleasure, or will be when it stops raining for a few days!

Read more posts on the LHF Blog


1850s   1900 Farm   Changing Seasons   Farm Implements


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