Contributed by Farmstead Assistant Sara Miller.
May was wet! All of Western New York experienced record setting rain totals throughout the month of May and the BNHV farmstead was no exception. The photo above shows what will be our wheat/oat field underwater and inhabited by a pair of geese and ducks. Normally, fields should be plowed by the beginning to middle of May and crops should be planted by the end of the month. At the time of writing, it is a week after Memorial Day and I still have not been able to finish our planting! Thank goodness it is not the 19th century where we would depend upon these crops for our own survival.
As historian and historic interpreter at Old Sturbridge Village, in Massachusetts, Tom Kelleher states, “thanks to the evolution of agriculture, food in Western culture has become so plentiful and so ubiquitous that the threat of starvation is a distant cultural memory. Indeed, plenty has grown into its own threat to human health and longevity, namely in the epidemic of obesity.” This does not mean that modern farmers do not suffer; as I am sure they will this season due to delays in plowing and planting. Rather, it means that even if modern farmers have a rough year, or two for last year was a drought remember, they will not starve. There is always a store somewhere close by where food can be purchased. This was not the case during the 19th century where farmers were at the will of Mother Nature. A cool, wet spring such as this may well have meant less food for the coming winter months.
So what exactly does planting season look like at the BNHV farmstead? Join me as I take you on a journey through the farming process here on the farmstead!
Step 1: Beginning in January Historic Buildings and Grounds Manager, Scott Schotz, Education Director, Jenny Nickeson, and myself met to discuss what we were intersted in growing this upcoming season. We purchased the seeds we decided upon and I began a number of them upstairs in our “greenhouse”.
Step 2: Scott and I then brainstormed where we would be planting this spring and measured out the plots. Once the plots were established, we covered them with tarps to begin killing the grass which would make it easier to plow later.
Step 3: Once May arrived we knew we wanted to try getting some of our seeds in the ground. The plot of land that served as our pumpkin patch last year is going to house new crops this year, since you need to rotate crops in order to get the best production. I began broad-forking this area the first week or so of May. Broad-forking entails turning over the soil and breaking up larger chunks of dirt, along with removing any weeds. Essentially, I was getting the soil ready for planting.
Step 4: Around mid-May the tarps were removed from the plots that we planned to farm. The now dead grassed areas were plowed and then we purchased some compost to lay over the top. Unfortunately it rained again in between, setting the compost laying back a couple of days.
Step 5: Planting!
The smaller vegetable garden (old pumpkin patch) was the first area to dry out enough to plant. Here we have planted potatoes and strawberries thus far, and flax will be going in shortly. Next, I planted some barley in half of the wheat/oat field. It quickly began to grow, but unfortunately we experienced another big rain and the field once again flooded. Hopefully we did not lose the entire crop.
Our hops plants were next to go in, and are located along the side of the Bigelow House on the BNHV grounds. For these, we needed to build a rope system which will allow the hop branches to climb up to their estimated 18 feet.
Most recently some tobacco plants and feed corn were planted in one of our new fields that we prepared. Still to be planted, at the time of writing, are our pumpkins, wheat, and oats.
I have also been busy planting our kitchen garden outside the Elliott House where you will find household essentials such as: lettuce, cabbage, carrots, peas, tomatoes, peppers, corn, beans, and squash (all heritage seeds). One cannot forget Herb’s favorite…German Beer Radishes! You will find these growing in our kitchen garden as well. So make sure you stop by this summer to check out the progress of our crops. Our potatoes are already starting to sprout, as you can see in the picture below.
 Debra A. Reid; Interpreting Agriculture at Museums and Historic Sites; (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017); ix.