Chronicles of America 

Farming in New France

It was the royal desire that New France should some day become a powerful and prosperous agricultural colony, providing the motherland with an acceptable addition to its food supply. To this end large tracts of land were granted upon most liberal terms to incoming settlers, and every effort was made to get these acres cultivated. Encouragement and coercion were alike given a trial. Settlers who did well were given official recognition, sometimes even to the extent of rank in the "noblesse". On the other hand those who left their lands uncleared were repeatedly threatened with the revocation of their land-titles, and in some cases their holdings were actually taken away. From the days of the earliest settlement down to the eve of the English conquest, the officials of both the Church and the State never ceased to use their best endeavors in the interests of colonial agriculture.

Yet with all this official interest and encouragement agricultural development was slow. Much of the land on both the north and the south shores of the St. Lawrence was heavily timbered, and the work of clearing proved tedious. It was estimated that an industrious settler, working by himself, could clear not more than one superficial "arpent" in a whole season. So slowly did the work make progress, in fact, that in 1712, after fifty years of royal paternalism, the cultivable area of New France amounted to only 150,000 "arpents", and at the close of the French dominion in 1760 it was scarcely more than twice that figure,--in other words, about five "arpents" for each head of population.

While industry and trade, particularly the Indian trade, took the attention and interest of a considerable portion in the population of New France, agriculture was from first to last the vocation of the great majority. The census of 1695 showed more than seventy-five per cent of the people living on the farms of the colony and this ratio was almost exactly maintained, nearly sixty years later, when the census of 1754 was compiled. This population was scattered along both banks of the St. Lawrence from a point well below Quebec to the region surrounding Montreal. Most of the farms fronted on the river so that every habitant had a few "arpents" of marshy land for hay, a tract of cleared upland for ploughing, and an area extending to the rear which might be turned into meadow or left uncleared to supply him with firewood.

Wheat and maize were the great staples, although large quantities of oats, barley, and peas were also grown. The wheat was invariably spring-sown, and the yield averaged from eight to twelve hundredweights per "arpent", or from ten to fourteen bushels per acre. Most of the wheat was made into flour at the seigneurial mills and was consumed in the colony, but shipments were also made with fair regularity to France, to the West Indies, and for a time to Louisbourg. In 1736 the exports of wheat amounted to nearly 100,000 bushels, and in the year following the banner harvest of 1741 this total was nearly doubled. The price which the habitant got for wheat at Quebec ranged normally from two to four "livres" per hundredweight (about thirty to sixty cents per bushel) depending upon the harvests in the colony and the safety with which wheat could be shipped to France, which, again, hinged upon the fact whether France and England were at peace or at war. Indian corn was not exported to any large extent, but many cargoes of dried peas were sent abroad, and occasionally there were small shipments of oats and beans.

There was also a considerable production of hemp, flax, and tobacco, but not for export in any large quantity. The tobacco grown in the colony was coarse and ill-flavored. It was smoked by both the habitant and the Indian because it was cheap; but Brazilian tobacco was greatly preferred by those who could afford to buy it, and large quantities of this were brought in. The French Government frowned upon tobacco-growing in New France, believing, as Colbert wrote to Talon in 1672, that any such policy would be prejudicial to the interests of the French colonies in the tropical zones which were much better adapted to this branch of cultivation.

Cattle raising made substantial progress, and the King urged the Sovereign Council to prohibit the slaughter of cattle so that the herds might keep on growing; but the stock was not of a high standard, but undersized, of mongrel breed, and poorly cared for. Sheep raising, despite the brisk demand for wool, made slow headway. Most of the wool needed in the colony had to be brought from France, and the demand was great because so much woolen clothing was required for winter use. The keeping of poultry was, of course, another branch of husbandry. The habitants were fond of horses; even the poorest managed to keep two or three, which was a wasteful policy as there was no work for the horses to do during nearly half the year. Fodder, however, was abundant and cost nothing, as each habitant obtained from the flats along the river all that he could cut and carry away. This marsh hay was not of superior quality, but it at least served to carry the horses and stock through the winter.

The methods of agriculture were beyond question slovenly and crude. Catalogne, the engineer whom the authorities commissioned to make an agricultural census of the colony, ventured the opinion that, if the fields of France were cultivated as the farms of Canada were, three-quarters of the French people would starve. Rotation of crops was practically unknown, and fertilization of the land was rare, although the habitant frequently burned the stubble before putting the plough to his fields. From time to time a part of each farm was allowed to lie fallow, but such fallow fields were left unploughed and soon grew so rank with weeds that the soil really got no rest at all. All the ploughing was done in the spring, and it was not very well done at that, for the land was ploughed in ridges which left much waste between the furrows. Too often the seed became poor, as a result of the habitant using seed from his own crops year after year until it became run out. Most of the cultivated land was high and dry and needed no artificial drainage. Even where the water lay on the land late in the spring, however, there was rarely an attempt, as Peter Kalm in his "Travels" remarks, to drain it off. The habitant had patience in greater measure than industry, and he was always ready to wait for nature to do his work. Everybody depended for his implements largely upon his own workmanship, so that the tools of agriculture were of poor construction. The cultivation of even a few "arpents" required a great deal of manual drudgery. On the other hand, the land of New France was fertile, and every one could have plenty of it for the asking. Kalm thought it quite as good as the average in the English colonies and far better than most arable land in his own Scandinavia.

Why, then, did French-Canadian agriculture, despite the warm official encouragement given to it, make such relatively meager progress? There are several reasons for its backwardness. The long winters, which developed in the habitant an inveterate disposition to idleness, afford the clue to one of them. A general aversion to unremitting manual toil was one of the colony's besetting sins. Notwithstanding the small per capita acreage, accordingly, there was a continual complaint that not enough labor could be had to work the farms. Women and children were pressed into service in the busy seasons. Yet the colony abounded in idle men, and mendicancy at one time assumed such proportions as to require the enforcement of stringent penalties. The authorities were partly to blame for the development of this trait, for upon the slightest excuse they took the habitant from his daily routine and set him to help with warlike expeditions against the Indians and the English, or called him to build roads or to repair the fortifications. And the lure of the fur trade, which drew the most vigorous young men of the land off the farms into the forest, was another obstacle to the growth of yeomanry. Moreover, the curious and inconvenient shape of the farms, most of them mere ribbons of land, with a narrow frontage and disproportionate depth, handicapped all efforts to cultivate the fields in an intelligent way. Finally, there was the general poverty of the people. With a large family to support, for families of ten to fifteen children were not uncommon, it was hard for the settler to make both ends meet from the annual yield of a few "arpents", however fertile. The habitant, therefore, took the shortest cut to everything, getting what he could out of his land in the quickest possible way with no reference to the ultimate improvement of the farm itself. If he ever managed to get a little money, he was likely to spend it at once and to become as impecunious as before. Such a propensity did not make for progress, for poverty begets slovenliness in all ages and among all races of men.

If anything like the industry and intelligence that was bestowed upon agriculture in the English colonies had been applied to the St. Lawrence valley, New France might have shipped far more wheat than beaver skins each year to Europe. But in this respect the colony never half realized the royal expectations. On the other hand, the attempt to make the land a rich grain-growing colony was far from being a flat failure. It was supporting its own population, and had a modest amount of grain each year for export to France or to the French West Indies. With peace it would soon have become a land of plenty, for the traveler who passed along the great river from Quebec to Montreal in the late autumn might see, as Kalm in his "Travels" tells us he saw, field upon field of waving grain extending from the shores inward as far as the eye could reach, broken only here and there by tracts of meadow and woodland. Here was at least the nucleus of a Golden West.

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