January 14th, 2007
Ten Acres Enough

Ten Acres Enough.
Edmund Morris.
Dover Publications. 2004. (Reprint of the 1867 edition.)
ISBN 0-486-43737-X

In the sixties Edmund Morris wrote a slim book about how he gave up city life i. his native Philadelphia and moved, with his wife and six kids, back to the land. He used half his life savings to purchase a small farm in New Jersey outright. Although he had no previous farming experience, he had spent years beforehand reading everything he could about farming, talking to farmers at the market, and visiting farms. Within three years he had made more money than he’d manage to save in his previous twenty. He owed no rent and his family ate well off what the farm produced. He believed so firmly that he had found a practical path to comfort and security that he wrote Ten Acres Enough to explain how he did it and encourage others to follow his example. The year was 1864–almost a hundred years before Helen and Scott Nearing’s Living the Good Life, The Mother Earth News, and the Whole Earth Catalogs.

Edmund Morris had studied the economics of the westward movement. Out west land was cheaper but corn and wheat brought low prices at the market and there was the trouble of freighting them there. He decided it made more business sense to grow berries and soft fruits to sell to the Philadelphia and New York markets.

I’m fascinated with the details of this book in the same way I’m delighted with the descriptions of daily life in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books which describe a much more primitive life two decades later. Edmund Morris kept very exact accounts and shares them with us.

He planted 804 peach trees, six acres of strawberries, two acres of raspberries, one acre in tomatoes, one in clover, and the remaining in miscellaneous vegetables such as cabbages and pumpkins. His wife and eldest daughter were in charge of a large vegetable garden. Whenever they went to town to shop, they took their surplus to the town general store to sell on consignment. At the end of the year when they settled up their grocery account, they were surprised to discover that the merchant owed them money.

Edmund Morris was an advocate of what we call the “French intensive” method of gardening. He believed in digging deep and adding a lot of organic material. He collected leaves from all over the neighborhood and built huge composting trenches. And he believed, more than anything, in the power of manure. His biggest expense ($248) for manure. When you consider that his 11 acres and the house cost $1000 and that he paid his live-in help an annual salary of $144…it’s mind-boggling. Eventually he embarked in a system of manure production in which he bought spring calves which he raised to maturity and then sold, not for the profit on the cows (which was about $2) but for the manure they produced (saving him $248). He developed a system of watering his crops with manure tea by putting a large watering tank on wheels.

Morris was ahead of his time in his views on birds and dedicates an entire chapter to explain how beneficial they are to farmers and gardeners, who considered them pests and thieves. When he discovers “three great, overgrown boobies, with guns in their hands, trampling down my strawberries, and shooting bluebirds and robins,” he evicts them. “I suggested to them that I thought their own township was quite large enough to keep its own loafers, without sending them to depredate on me, warned them never to show themselves on my premises again, and then drove them out.” Another time a neighboring farmer was killing some birds in his wheat field. To prove that the birds did more good than harm, they “opened up its crop, and found in it two hundred weevils, and but four grains of wheat, and in these four grains the weevil had burrowed!”

He embraced innovation and science. While still living in Philadephia he had invested almost $1 a piece for six root cuttings of a newly discovered and improved blackberry (discovered in 1834 by Lewis Secor but made famous by William Lawton)–known as the Lawton or New Rochelle blackberry. He felt cheated when the plants came in a letter, “mere fibres of a greater root–certainly not thicker than a thill quill, not one of them having a top. They looked like long white worms, with here and there a bud or eye.” Two summers later “they bore a crop of fruit which astonished me. From the group of bushes I picked fifteen quarts of berries superior to any thing of the kind we had ever eaten.” When he moved to the farm, he brought 200 blackberry plants with him. His neighbors laughed at him for planting blackberries that grew in every hedgerow and which they struggled to dig out. However, when he sold the superior fruit at market at high prices, they clamored for plants. He ended up selling $460 worth of blueberry plants which is what put him in the black his first year on the farm.

He faced problems with his tomato crop because early and late tomatoes fetched a high price at the market but in mid-season the market was glutted. Morris describes as hopeful the new technique for tinning tomatoes so that they can be preserved for winter use and save the waste of letting them rot in the fields when the effort to ship them to market is not worth the gain. He marvels at the dexterity of the tinmen who can solder lids on cans at the rate of almost 100 an hour.

Another problem was the expense of the cartons and cases required to ship his produce by train to the cities. A certain portion were not returned. He longs for some disposable form of packaging which would reduce his cost and perhaps encourage people who do not want to mess with returns to buy produce. Well, we all know where that led us.

I enjoyed this book so much that after checking it out from the library, I bought it for myself. The writing is a bit old-fashioned. And, especially in the last two chapters, it has the distinct tone of a proselytising self-help book. That was it’s aim, to encourage other people to go back-to-the-land. He includes plenty of details of his methods and lots of facts and figures. I’m stunned at the enormity of his labors but he seems to think life in the country is much easier than the stress of living in the city and “working for the landlord”.

by M Sinclair Stevens

5 Responses to post “Ten Acres Enough”

  1. From Kathy (New York):

    I’ve been reading American Girls series to my youngest daughter, and even these fictionalized historical accounts leave me ashamed at my wimpiness. We can hardly even guess at the physical labor people considered normal 150 years ago, and I shudder to think of our nation ever being forced to go back to it.

  2. From M2 (Austin):

    What a great book that sounds like! One of the things that I like about a really good fantasy (or, occasionally, mystery) book is that it describes how people lived in a given time, in an appealing way that non-fiction books don’t tend to try for. It sounds like this book has the best of both worlds … AND great advice on gardening.

    I’m glad Mr. Morris got the life he wanted, and worked for. He put some quality research into it!

  3. From firefly:

    I’ll have to look this book up — I’ve been reading “Making a Living in the Middle Ages” which describes a similar sounding way of life: most peasants were required to work for a lord 1 to 2 days a week (and if it rained, the lord often lost the work); the rest of the time was spent working their own fields to raise food and possibly reap a surplus that could be sold or exchanged for goods. This was just around the time they discovered that extra cartloads of manure increased crop yields, and that fields not allowed to go fallow and grazed by sheep and cows (who left manure behind) eventually deteriorated.

    It must have been a labor-intensive life, but (especially on Monday mornings 🙂 working to grow the food that then goes on your table sounds idyllic. None of the frenetic gotta-go-to-work morning routine, and no split between weeks working in the office and weekends catching up around the house on things you can’t do because you’re at the office.

  4. From Jenn:

    MSS and Firefly – Both books are now on my wishlist (Making a Living in the Middle Ages, and Ten Acres Enough) Thanks for pointing them out to me!

  5. From entangled:

    I’ve been interested in books like this for a long time, but never got around to this one or to Living the Good Life. (Hmm, what did I just say?)

    I’m currently reading Malabar Farm by Louis Bromfield, after having read Pleasant Valley a couple of years ago. Pleasant Valley describes the author’s plan and early progress towards self-sufficiency, but on a large scale. Malabar Farm (so far) is about what worked and what didn’t. Bromfield’s was a sort of gentleman’s farm – he had already made a lot of money as an author and so had a lot of resources to throw at the project.

    I still love Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books. When I was young, I checked them out from the library (probably more than anybody else in town) and I asked for a set in hardback for Christmas several years ago. The Long Winter is always good for getting over whatever winter inconveniences we find ourselves with now.