Clover – Part 2

Robert Wood

During most of the 18th century, Germanic immigrants continued the centuries old agricultural practices with which they were familiar. The paramount need of the settlers was grain. Those farmers fortunate enough to have streams often had irrigated meadows, but aside from that, their acreage was either in grain, fallow, or woodland. However, as detailed last week, at the beginning of the 19th century, red clover revolutionized Pennsylvania agriculture.

A legume, one of a class of plants which fixes atmospheric nitrogen into a form that all crops can use, red clover also provided a high protein hay which could be grown in upland fields replacing native meadow grass which had previously constituted winter fodder.

Red clover and timothy grass were native to Europe, but about 1800 their use became more common in Pennsylvania along with the practice of sweetening the soil with lime and gypsum. Interestingly, the iron blade of the German scythes did not cut the new hay crops very well which caused the introduction of the steel bladed English scythe on the Germanic farms.

Red clover first appears locally in Chester County where a more Anglo farming population was perhaps quicker to adopt the new crop. Deeply conservative, the Montgomery County (then Philadelphia County) Dutchmen were slow to accept anything new, especially one wherein the seeds cost money!

Clover seed, however, was an important Lancaster County export. By the 1780s, newspaper were advertising “Lancaster County red clover seed” for sale. The 1810 census shows that Lancaster county had 12 water powered clover mills to hull the clover seed from the dried flowers. That same year Lancaster County produced an astounding 4,900 bushels of clover seed.

One Pennsylvania Dutch informant says, “My grandfather had a particular day for sowing clover seed. It was early in the morning on one of the days when the moon was in the sign of cancer. But then it was best if the ground was frozen in open crystals. That way the seed was captured by the thawing ground and was ‘planted.’ It was in the sign of the crab which had a grasping nature and would draw it down into the ground, or so they believed. They sowed it in a grain field that would be harvested in July.”  With the grain crop removed the clover seedlings could grown and would be ready for the first cutting the following summer.

The increased production of clover and grass stimulated the keeping of more livestock which, sequestered in the barn and barnyard overwinter, produced more manure. Many of the Anglo farmers considered manure a  nuisance and didn’t spread it on the fields. In Pennsylvania Agriculture…Fletcher writes, “There were, however, a few farmers who valued manure; most of them were Germans. As soon as they had built their spacious Swiss barns they began to save and apply manure. Corn stalks were thrown into the barnyard; what were not eaten were trampled by the cattle, mixed with manure and straw from the big stack. The barnyard was cleaned out once a year, after oats harvest, the compost spread on oats stubble and plowed under in preparation for wheat. A large straw stack and a barnyard full of manure, especially if the manure  was enriched by fattening cattle, was considered evidence of good farming.”

Leaves too were collected from woodland and carted to the barnyard to be spread into the composting mix underfoot. The Goschenhoppen Museum has a special fork from this period designed to scoop up leaves for this purpose.

As the Dutchmen were slow to accept the new crop, they were likewise slow to abandon it when in the early 20th century the next Wonder Crop, alfalfa, was introduced into the state.