Shaped by the soil

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Planters: lucky, lazy - or both?


Kings County Advertiser/Register

The Planters may have enjoyed more wealth and agricultural success if they’d stayed in New England, according to Dr. Julian Gwyn.

The Berwick resident and professor emeritus at University of Ottawa shared some of his expertise in economic history of pre-Confederation Nova Scotia during the February Charles H. Read Family Lecture in Planters Studies. Titled “Shaped by the Soil: Were the Minas Basin Planters Successful Farmers?”, his talk suggested the New England settlers were not particularly dedicated or accomplished farmers, but reaped the benefits of the Acadians’ work.

Unfortunately, information is slim. Although more labour was involved in farming than in any other sector in pre-1867 Nova Scotia, both historians and government records neglect the details.

The Planters’ agricultural record is mixed, Gwyn said. There is debate over how well Planters adapted to the dykeland farms left by the Acadians. Little information is known, as well, about the literacy of the Planters.

“Literacy goes hand in hand with poverty - then as now. Not many historians of pre-Confederation Nova Scotia are willing to talk about poverty.”

Perhaps their initial success can be attributed to the skills of the expelled Acadian farmers, rather than their own knack for farming. “We have some good soil, but no very good soil,” Gwyn said. “Many who came here had to farm - but weren’t particularly good at it.”

According to Gwyn, a typical large farm of the time would have had 15 horses, 40 cows, 40 calves, 100 sheep, 18 swine and 18 cattle; small farms would have far fewer livestock.

In historical record, Minas Basin farmers were noted by their contemporaries for their laziness: one governor noted their “want of industry,” and agriculture was generally looked down upon.  

In 1774, two men from Yorkshire journeying through Nova Scotia noted Horton farmers’ “tillage seems good,” but “found farmers lazy, indolent people who slept in ‘til 7 or 8, had rum before work and were back at 11.”

Another observer in 1790 wrote “one cannot but wonder at the slow progress of agriculture.”

In 1818, Lieutenant Governor Lord Dalhousie recorded, “the character of the people... is by no means favourable. The state of agriculture is wretched… cider is made with no knowledge of the art.” However, good husbandry in the area of cattle was noted.

According to contemporary sources, proper use of manure was ignored, no crop rotation was used and “too little grain was grown.” While wars during the 18th Century kept prices high, when war ended in 1815, prices fell and farmers were ruined. Some were even jailed for debt.

With the founding of the Kings agricultural society in 1789, farmers lobbied for improved livestock markets, but the society spent most of its efforts on social improvements, such as a library and Sunday schools. Later efforts by county and provincial agricultural societies helped encourage better farm practices.  In 1826, John Whidden praised the work of the Kings Federation of Agriculture in this area, including the introduction of better quality crops, fertilizers, French drains and improved livestock strains.

Come the 1830s, Nova Scotia continued to look back on wartime fondly, Gwyn said. The quality of soil was bemoaned, especially in rocky, upland holdings. By 1870, four per cent of houses were uninhabited.

By the 1850s, Nova Scotia was less self-sufficient than it had been in 1800, due in part to potato blight. Only area of agricultural expansion was in barley and oats. Nova Scotia was shipping in wheat from the United States.

“Many who came here had to farm - but weren’t particularly good at it.” Dr. Julian Gwyn

In 1851, half of the population’s principle occupation was farming. But, during the 19th Century, agricultural output per person was relatively low. While population grew 589 per cent between 1767 and 1827, farm production did not keep up, especially in grains. Swine, sheep and potato production was slightly better. In the 1860s, the province was self-sufficient in beef and pork.

While there were few standout successes in farming before 1867, Minas Basin farmers held a comparative advantage, good well-drained soil and business acumen, Gwyn said. Because the Acadians had found most of the province’s good soil, Planters could do well if they learned quickly. Farmers in the area stood out among provincial agriculturalists, but wealth lay not in the land, but in shipping, banking and other non-farming professions.

Planters 2010

Hosted by Acadia University's Planter Studies Centre and the Kings-Hants Heritage Connection, the February event kicked off celebrations for the 250th anniversary of the New England Planters’ arrival in the area.

Booklets marking Planters 2010, commissioned by the Kings-Hants Heritage Connection and written by Dr. Julian Gwyn, were launched during the evening. Printed and designed by Kentville’s Gaspereau Press, the history covers Planter settlements in the townships of Newport, Falmouth, Horton and Cornwallis between 1755 and 1825.

Members of the Atlantic Living Heritage Association were also on hand in Planter dress to mark the launch.





Organizations: University of Ottawa, Kings-Hants Heritage Connection, Kings Federation of Agriculture Acadia University Planter Studies Centre Gaspereau Press Atlantic Living Heritage Association

Geographic location: Nova Scotia, New England, Berwick Minas Basin Yorkshire United States Falmouth

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