Philadelphians Studying Barley Varieties In 1788 And 1819

A road block. As much a writer’s block as a researching one. Spring is a rotten time to sit down to a computer in the evening. Softball games need being watched, exam sitters need being encouraged and the garden still remains not fully planted. It’s a bad time of the year to daydream about what was going on with brewing in the years around 1800. But then the hint is there – the garden – and away you go again.

The Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture is the oldest agricultural society in the United States, first organized in 1785. Reports about its early findings pop up fairly regularly in newspapers reminding you that leading edge science was always interesting and important. Was it the Homebrew Computer Club of its era? Maybe. Ben Franklin was a founder. But it didn’t exactly set off a nation-wide explosion of research. My nearby Jefferson County Agricultural Society is the second oldest in New York State but, still, it’s thirty-two years younger than the one in Philadelphia. But it started things rolling. The Philadelphia Society’s is mentioned in the 31 July 1788 letter to George Washington from gentleman farmer George Morgan discussing strategies to avoid crop loss that seems connected to that newspaper report in the Poughkeepsie Journal on Hiltzheimer’s crop planting tests from that fall. Both are related to the Hessian Fly. Morgan writes:

Your Excellency is no doubt informed of the Ravages made in Connecticut, New York and New Jersey by the Hessian Fly, whose History is given in various Publications: As this Insect is now advanced to the Neighbourhood of Philadelphia, and its Progress southward is alarming to the Farmer, I have taken some Pains to inform myself of its Manners and Life, and to make several Experiments to oppose its destructive Depredations: From these it appears that good Culture of strong Soil, or well manured Lands, may sometimes produce a Crop of Wheat or Barley, when that sowed in poor or middling Soil, without the other Advantages, will be totally destroy’d…

The Hessian Fly, Morgan reports, only attacked the wheat and barley. Rye was seldom touched and oats, buckwheat and corn were unaffected. The Hessian Fly was still hammering the crops in the Upper Hudson in 1799. Which goes a long way to explain why Sir William Strickland is studying American agriculture in the mid-1790s. Given Europe’s croplands are being ravaged by war, finding sources of grain was vital. Two decades on, the issue is still a concern of the Philadelphia Agricultural Society, as noted in volume 1, number 12 of The American Farmer from 18 June 1819:

In England, and other parts of Europe, and in the northern parts of our country, summer wheat is raised to great advantage. Whether or not it would escape the fly is doubtful; for flies have been found in plenty in summer barley. ‘ It is not yet agreed what kinds of wheats best withstand injuries from the Hessian Fly. The yellow bearded and other wheats with solid straw or strong stems, (the solid stemmed wheats being designated by the appellation of cane or cone wheats) are deemed the most efficacious. Farmers should bend their sedulous attention to the selection of such wheats. Good farming, manure, and reasonably late sowing, are certainly the best securities. But too late seeding is unsafe; for the spring-brood of flies attack the tender plants of every late sown wheat, not sufficiently forward to be capable of resisting this foe, with the like destructive effect we experience in spring barley; appearing to prefer, for this purpose, plants in the early stages of their growth. It is, most probably, a native here. lt never entirely leaves us; though it appears, at irregular periods, in numbers less scourging than at times when its ravages are more conspicuously destructive.

Which indicates that there was a very good reason that six-row winter barley continued to be the preferred crop of barley well into the 1800s despite the advice given from England to move to two-row and its higher productivity. The finer crop simply was not suited to the local conditions. Winter wheat was out of the ground and hearty enough to withstand the fly. This also ties into Craig’s observations from last January about the second third of the 1800s when he noticed Albany area brewers adding honey to the wort to top up the fermentables. Six-row worked.

Which makes me wonder when exactly six-row ever got into most of the mash in America?

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