At the intersection of Isaacs Road and Cedar Creek Road, just north of Milton, a very tall brick chimney stands at one corner of a concrete pad. Both are overrun with weeds, but one can tell through the size of the chimney and concrete pad that this was not the site of a private residence, but of some kind of commercial enterprise. It is indeed the site where the John Sudler Isaacs Cannery once stood – in its day, one of the largest producers of canned lima beans in the world. The Isaacs family in this region has a documented history dating back at least to the American Revolution; John Sudler Isaacs (1889 – 1950) was one of the more successful members of this family, the first of Delaware’s “agribusinessmen.”
A historical marker, placed at the site of the cannery only a few years ago, is the only visible reminder of the operation, and cannot do justice to the accomplishments of John Sudler Isaacs in business and in state politics.
This posting is the first in a series of articles that will look at John S. Isaacs’ involvement in farming and poultry production in lower Delaware. We begin with a look at farming in general from the late 19th until well into the 20th century.
Delaware Agriculture from the 19th to the mid-twentieth centuries
When John Sudler Isaacs was born in 1889 near Greenwood, Sussex County was beginning to come out of a century and a half of relative isolation. Railroad lines were crisscrossing the county and the state, and both sail- and steam-powered vessels docked at landings along the tidal rivers that flowed into Delaware Bay. The coming of the railroads was of great benefit to farmers that needed to ship perishable items quickly to city markets; however, the technology of farming and yields per acre in southern Delaware did not keep pace with improvements in transportation.
There are a number of factors that contributed to the lack of significant improvements in the productivity of Sussex County farms in the post-Civil War era. One was the slow pace of population growth; there was little immigration into Sussex since colonial times. Most of the population was descended from the original British settlers and African Americans brought to the state to work the fields. Under these circumstances, population growth was slow and labor was in short supply, making expansion of farming activity problematic.
In 1870, 81% of the county’s land area was in farmland; the average farm size in the county was about 140 acres. By 1890, the average farm size in Sussex was 106 acres; the number of farms had increased over that twenty-year period, while the acreage in cultivation decreased. The growth of towns and cities in the county, and their industries, can account for some of the decrease in acreage under cultivation. As for the increase in the number of farms, many Sussex County farms were family-owned, and division of a farmer’s estate among his heirs would further reduce the acreage owned by individuals. For example, Minos Isaacs—John Sudler Isaacs’s grandfather—had eleven children by three wives, and upon his death his farmland was divided evenly among all of them.
Sussex County farmers had fully transitioned to horse-drawn machinery from hand implements by the end of the Civil War, but were generally unable to take advantage of steam-powered tractors that made their appearance later in the century. Horses were expensive to buy and to maintain, as each horse required the cultivation of five acres of oats, hay and fodder every year. That last requirement effectively reduced the amount of acreage that could be devoted to cash crops. Steam-powered tractors were very large, and not well-suited to the small size of Sussex County farms. They were also too expensive for most small farmers, required two hours to fire up enough steam to operate, and were prone to boiler explosions. However, local farmers often collectively hired a crew with a steam engine and a separator thresher to carry out that particular operation for multiple farms. The Steam Traction Engine remained stationary while powering the thresher, so the small size of Sussex County farms was not a problem. We do have some evidence that steam-powered farm equipment was used in Milton as early as 1902; David A. Conner refers to a steam-powered thresher near the end of his column of August 2, 1902.
Gasoline-powered tractors would not make their appearance in Sussex County farms until the 1920’s, and then only slowly.
A fascinating demonstration (see video here)was conducted on a farm field in Nebraska that compared the times it took for a four-horse team and several models of tractor to each plow forty acres. The horse drawn machine required 55 hours to plow the 40 acres, without counting the hours that the farmer stopped to rest and feed the horses. A 1936 Farmall tractor took 25 hours to plow the same acreage, without horses to rest and feed. A 1929 John Deere with a ten-foot disk array instead of a plow took 5.5 hours. A 1997 John Deere tractor with a 25 foot disc array took 1.1 hours.
Finally, Delaware soil itself was problematic. The most common type of soil in the state is of the Fallsington variety, which drains poorly and depletes rapidly. Scientific agriculture would not address this issue until well into the twentieth century.
Looking at yield per acre of land planted in corn provides a good perspective on historical agricultural productivity. In the year of John Sudler Isaacs’s birth, 1889, the average yield per acre of corn was 17.7 bushels throughout the U. S. More importantly, the yield did not rise above 30 bushels/acre until the beginning of World War II, when demand for all agricultural products skyrocketed. From then on, yields trended upward, with yields reaching more than 40 bu/acre by 1945 and 165 bu/acre by 2010, falling only during periods of extreme drought. Throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s, agricultural scientists had been developing hybrid strains of corn that grew more tightly bunched together, and better fertilizers to replace the nitrogen that corn consumed voraciously. Increased use of mechanization, as gasoline-powered tractors became smaller and more affordable, would also play a major part in creating increased yields. During the 1930’s, however, farmers found it difficult to implement the full range of these developments because of stagnant, low market prices and the general effects of the Great Depression.
The onset of the Second World War ended that stagnation for good. As early as 1940, the U. S. government, although publicly neutral, started shipping large quantities of food products to Great Britain as part of the Lend-Lease Act, which immediately increased demands on America’s farmers. After Pearl Harbor, draftees and volunteers grew the armed forces to a peak of 15 million men and women, all of whom needed to be fed well. At the same time that demand for agricultural products sharply increased, the labor force in farming (as well as in all other industries) went into sharp decline. To meet the demand, farmers resorted to using more women, blacks, Bahamians, Jamaicans, Mexicans, and even German and Italian prisoners of war, but that in itself was not sufficient; farm productivity had to be increased dramatically. This war-driven demand more than doubled grain prices between 1940 and 1945, putting considerably more income into the hands of farmers in Sussex County. With the encouragement of the Federal Government to produce more with less, increased discretionary income and access to credit from local banks, farmers in Sussex County invested in mechanization and steadily improved their yields and income throughout the war years and into the twenty-first century. Today, the yield of corn today is nearly nine times what it was in 1870.
John Sudler Isaacs, born in the era that predated farm mechanization and scientific agriculture, would play a very prominent role in the transformation of 19th century farming in Sussex County to a modern business model. Subsequent postings in this series will look at his development from tenant farmer to a major player in the “integrated agriculture” business.