“And Then What Shall We Do?”
How Black Stem Rust, Hessian Flies, and Wheat Midges Destroyed Wheat Farming in Connecticut
Jamie H. Eves
Windham Textile and History Museum
In 1884 J. R. Dodge, the newly hired Chief Statistician for the United States Department of Agriculture, sent a terse, 146-page, fact-filled report to Congress. A musty, brittle, yellowed copy of the report, set in the tiny, no-nonsense type and dull black covers of the Government Printing Office, sits open on my desk. It is part of the 1884 Annual Report of the United States Commissioner of Agriculture, a copy of which is shelved in the Government Documents Room of the Homer Babbidge Library at the University of Connecticut. Published each year since the mid-1800s, the Reports are treasure troves of information about rural life in America.
Dodge’s careful statistics reveal that 120 years ago the United States was an agricultural powerhouse, producing several billion dollars worth of farm goods each year. The country’s main crops were cotton, tobacco, hay, potatoes, maize (corn), oats, and wheat. That year American farmers produced a whopping 1,551 million bushels of maize, 571 million bushels of oats, and 421 million bushels of wheat. Wheat had by far the best prices of any of the grains, fetching about 91 cents a bushel. By contrast, maize and oats (both of which were used primarily for livestock feed) were worth only 42 and 33 cents a bushel. Although farm prices fluctuated greatly each year, Dodge reported that throughout the 1800s wheat had consistently sold for twice as much as maize and three times as much as oats. It also sold for more than rye, barley, buckwheat, Irish potatoes, and sweet potatoes, and rivaled cotton, tobacco, and dairy products. Along with cotton, wheat was one of America’s principal agricultural exports, annually accounting for more than $2 billion worth of international sales.
Yet Dodge’s statistics, arranged state-by-state, revealed that Connecticut’s farmers – normally sagacious, businesslike, and profit-minded – raised only 34,300 bushels of wheat in 1883, compared to 1,710,000 bushels of maize, 1,100,700 bushels of oats, and 3,625,700 bushels of potatoes. Considering that the price of wheat was so much higher than maize, oats, or potatoes – and that the Connecticut River valley had the relatively fertile soil and cool, northern climate normally associated with wheat production in North America – we have to wonder why Connecticut farmers produced so little wheat. Although a number of variables were involved, the chief reasons, it turns out, were the depredations of predatory insects and fungi. The profound impact of these tiny creatures on the economic history of Connecticut is a sobering reminder that it is often the small, unseen invaders that weak the most havoc.
At one time wheat had grown in Connecticut in abundance. European colonists first introduced it in the 1600s. “Wheat was the most highly esteemed … European breadstuff,” wrote Percy Well Bidwell, a leading authority on Connecticut agriculture and professor of economics at Yale University in the early 1900s, “and it was natural that [the colonists] should [have made] especial efforts to introduce it in their new homes.” Throughout the seventeenth century wheat prospered in the Connecticut River valley. It was grown in Hartford as early as 1641. In 1652 the Springfield, Massachusetts, trader John Pynchon shipped 1,500 bushels of Connecticut valley wheat, mostly to Boston. In 1660 Connecticut Governor John Winthrop, Jr., boasted about his colony’s agricultural produce. “Through the great blessing of the Lord vpon the labours of the people heere, there is a comfortable supply of all sorts of corne [i. e., grain of all types] & provisions necessary for subsistance, & that not only for themselves (the present inhabitans), but also for many others,” he wrote. Winthrop continued, “Now the country doth send out great store of biscott, flower [i. e., flour], peas, beife, porke, butter, & other provisions to the supply of Barbados, Newfoundland, & other places.”
But Winthrop spoke too soon. Despite its early success, Connecticut wheat was vulnerable to diseases and pests accidentally introduced from Europe. An old-world crop not native to North America, Connecticut’s wheat was concentrated in only a few locations, leaving it especially open to attack. Worse, it was not protected by native symbiotes, animals specifically adapted to prey upon its pests and diseases, such as existed in Europe, Asia, and Africa. In the early 1600s wheat had no natural enemies in North America, and so it flourished. But that would change.
In the 1660s black stem rust, also known as “the blast,” arrived from Europe, a malevolent, unwanted hitchhiker on transatlantic ships. Probably it had been mixed in with English wheat straw, fed aboard ship to cattle. A parasitic fungus that attacked the stems and leaves of young wheat plants, black stem rust spread quickly in America. In the late 1600s it ravaged wheat crops throughout the coastal areas of Connecticut, nearly wiping out the entire crop. Moreover, it reappeared periodically thereafter. Although the blast rarely struck more than 20 or 30 miles inland (thus sparing most of the Connecticut River valley), it nevertheless wreaked havoc in the old farm towns along Long Island Sound. Black stem rust exists for part of its life cycle in barberry, which flourished in coastal areas. Although unaware of the precise relationship between black stem rust and barberry, Connecticut farmers nevertheless were quick to notice that the blast was most destructive in towns where barberries abounded. In 1726 Connecticut became the first colony to enact legislation against barberries. Unfortunately, enforcement was left to the towns, and little was accomplished. In 1796 New Haven appropriated the grand sum of $200 for the destruction of all barberry bushes within its boundaries, but by then it was too late. Except for in the Connecticut River valley and on the northern frontier, most Connecticut farmers gave up wheat by the mid-1700s. In 1754 a worried Jared Eliot wrote, “Our old Towns raising very little wheat, it is purchased at the new [i. e., frontier] Towns, and these new Towns will be old in Time; and then what shall we do?”
To make matters worse, another European scourge also invaded Connecticut. In the 1780s Hessian flies arrived across the Sound from Long Island, where they may have been introduced accidentally by British or German troops stationed there during the Revolution (1777-83). More widespread than the blast, the flies laid their eggs on the stems of wheat and other “English grains” (oats, rye, and barley) throughout Connecticut, although they left maize, a native-American plant, untouched. When the larvae hatched in June they hungrily consumed the wheat and other plants, wiping out entire fields. By 1800 the flies had spread throughout Connecticut. Desperate farmers tried to adapt. Some switched to rye. Unenthusiastically, Connecticut consumers combined rye flour with cornmeal to make a heavy, dark bread known as “rye and Injun” (so-called because it contained maize, or “Indian corn”), which most Connecticutters considered barely palatable. Those who could afford it bought expensive wheat flour imported from Pennsylvania or New York. Some Connecticut farmers, discovering that the first heavy, fall frosts killed the flies, shifted from planting during the normal third week in August to late September or early October. Others sowed hardier varieties of wheat. Yale President Timothy Dwight remarked in 1821 that before the flies appeared “white bald wheat was almost exclusively cultivated. This was much the best wheat, ever known in New-England. It was less exposed to injuries from the frost, or the blast, than any other. It yielded more by the acre; the grain was heavier; the flour was whiter, and better tasted; and the bread fresh and moist much longer. [However,] this wheat was, more than any other, the favorite food of the fly; and has, therefore, been for many years disused. The [less popular] yellow-bearded wheat has been substituted for it extensively.” Wheat declined rapidly.
And it wasn’t over yet. In the 1830s a third scourge, wheat midges, appeared. Introduced into North America from Europe, where they had existed for more than a century, wheat midges ravaged wheat fields throughout Connecticut, the rest of New England, eastern New York, and eastern Canada. Tiny, orange, two-winged flies, the midges laid their eggs on the glumes of the wheat head at blossoming time. Once hatched, the larvae sucked the sap from the young grains and caused them to shrivel up. Midges were even more destructive than Hessian flies, and as late as 1916 no effective control measures existed. The midges had appeared as if from nowhere, striking first in western Vermont in 1828. How they got there is unknown, although a good guess is that they traveled up the Richelieu River from Montreal, the eggs having crossed the Atlantic mixed in bags of wheat seed intended for British veterans immigrating to Canada after the Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815). In any case, the midges spread rapidly. From Vermont they moved inexorably southward and eastward, traveling at a rate of about 20 miles a year. Too light to fly into stiff headwinds, they were probably carried into Connecticut by North America’s prevailing northwesterlies. In 1829 midges destroyed wheat fields throughout Vermont, western New Hampshire, and the eastern townships of Quebec. In 1830 they wiped out crops in eastern New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. In 1833 they reached Maine. Once established, they returned year after year. “The country over which [they have] spread,” wrote Thaddeus William Harris, an early American etymologist, in 1862, “has continued to suffer more or less from its alarming depredations.” He continued, “The loss by which has been found to vary from about one-tenth part to nearly the whole amount of the annual crop of wheat; nor has the insect entirely disappeared in any place.”
And that was it. Faced with the depredations of the blast, Hessian flies, and wheat midges, farmers in Connecticut and the rest of New England gave up wheat almost entirely. While wheat production in the United States rose from 100 million bushels in 1850, to 173 million bushels in 1860, to 288 million bushels in 1870, to 459 million bushels in 1880, farmers in Connecticut satisfied themselves with less marketable crops of maize, oats, and potatoes. Global markets for wheat burgeoned (at least until the 1880s, when overproduction in the American West, Canada’s Prairie Provinces, Russia, and Australia created a glut and sent prices tumbling), but Connecticut farmers were locked out. Some switched to dairy farming. Others raised vegetables and fruits for nearby urban markets. A few retreated into subsistence agriculture. Many migrated west. A good number gave up farming, at least full-time, and took jobs in the new industrial textile mills.
Throughout its history, Connecticut has experienced many invasions. European colonists during the 1600s and pro-British rangers during the Revolution are only two. As environmental historians well know, not all of the invaders have been human. Many of the most destructive have been tiny creatures. In the 1600s smallpox, influenza, and measles decimated Connecticut’s native peoples. In the 1600s and 1700s dandelions and English herd’s grass drove out native grasses. In the 1800s cholera ravaged the state’s industrial cities. Today, wooly algolids imperil Connecticut’s hemlock forests. Among the most destructive invaders must be ranked black stem rust, Hessian flies, and wheat midges, which in the 1600s, 1700s, and 1800s combined with other factors to nearly wipe out wheat in Connecticut.