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The Elbert Files: Farming and history


Growing up in Iowa gave me a false sense of agriculture.


I didn’t grow up on a farm, but I thought a lifetime of listening to cash-grain and feeder-cattle reports gave me an innate knowledge of farming. 


It’s only recently that I see how little I really know. 


I always assumed that farm progress moved in a fairly consistent line from the time Europeans arrived in America, through George Washington Carver and Henry Wallace, right up to today’s computer-driven tractors and genetically engineered seeds and animals.


I had no sense of how much agricultural knowledge there was among Indigenous Americans before the Pilgrims and Jamestown settlers arrived in the early 1600s. 


Nor did I comprehend how that knowledge could be lost for generations.


I was taught that the people who lived here before Europeans arrived were largely hunter-gatherers and that their farming efforts were primitive at best.


Not true. In fact, recent scholarship paints an entirely different picture.   


Nathaniel Philbrick, in his 2006 book “Mayflower: Voyage, Community, War,” wrote that the Native Americans who greeted the arrival of the Pilgrims at Cape Cod in 1620 practiced fairly sophisticated agriculture.


Using stone hoes, Philbrick wrote, “the Indians gathered mounds of earth about a yard wide, where several fish (as fertilizer) were included with the seeds of corn. Once the corn sprouted, beans and squash were added to the mounds. The creepers from the beans attached to the growing cornstalks, creating a blanket of shade that protected the plants’ roots against the searing summer sun while also discouraging weeds.” 


The Pilgrims quickly recognized the value of Indian corn, which they had never seen, because “if kept dry, the kernels can be stored indefinitely,” Philbrick noted. 


A little farther south, the Chesapeake Bay natives who had greeted an earlier boatload of Englishmen in 1607 were also sophisticated farmers, according to Joseph Kelly’s 2018 book “Marooned: Jamestown, Shipwreck, and a New History of America’s Origin.”


Kelly wrote that a Native American settlement of nearly 10,000 square miles called Tsenacomoco existed when the first 104 Jamestown colonists arrived in the Chesapeake Bay. The area consisted of a series of districts and towns with houses that “leaked less than a well-made English house.” 


Near the towns natives had cleared fields “in order to plant corn, beans and squash. They planted in cycles: after four years the field was left alone, allowing barley, cordage plants, raspberries, and blackberries to grow in the first fallow seasons. Later came cherries, grapes, ground nuts, wild potatoes, sassafras, and persimmon,” Kelly wrote. 


Between Philbrick and Kelly, readers get an entirely different perspective on Native American life and agriculture than I learned in school during the 1950s and ’60s. 


Native American farming on the Atlantic seaboard was by no means unique. 


One thousand years ago, Cahokia, a community of as many as 30,000 people in the St. Louis area, was a center of agriculture and large public buildings. 


In the year 1050 Cahokia “was bigger than Paris,” Annalee Newitz wrote in her 2019 book “Four Lost Cities.” 


Cahokians “ate domesticated North American plants like goosefoot, little barley, marsh elder, maygrass and erect Knotweed. These plants are sometimes called ‘lost crops’ because they were once farmed intensively but have gone wild again,” Newitz wrote.


“Domesticated knotweed produced starchy, extremely hard seeds that had tough shells,” she added. “Cahokians cooked the seeds like popcorn in the embers of a fire.” They may also have soaked the seeds in lime “to turn it into a hominy-style porridge.”


“Knotweed and other lost crops formed the basis of a varied diet that combined fish and game with breads, porridges, oils, roasted nuts, stews, baked squash, and beans,” according to Newitz.


Iowa agriculture today is criticized for being too dependent on two crops – corn and soybeans – and for degrading the soil with chemical growth enhancers. 


Rather than always looking to the future for solutions, maybe it’s time we looked more deeply into our agricultural past.

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