Chapter Six

Farming the Wicomico: The Relationships between Man, River, and Soil

 Susan Brazer

“Man can hardly recognize the devils of his own creation.” – Albert Schweitzer

Farming is a contradiction in terms - the gentle and time-honored task of coaxing fruits and vegetables from the land in order to feed the many all too often leaves the land barren and infertile, unable to feed even one.  While the history of farming can trace thousands of years of people carefully living on and working with the earth, very few farmers actually work in harmony with the land anymore.  Instead, supplemented by barrels of petrochemicals and urged on by their corporate sponsors, they intensively plunder the earth, alternately shocking it with dangerous levels of chemicals and then stripping it bare to be attacked by the harsh elements.  While this in itself is a dangerous thing to do to the earth, it has further-reaching implications that extend beyond a few acres of land.  Rather the consequences of what the farmer does to his plot of earth is carried first to the wind and then to the water – and in this aspect the entire earth is forever changed.


Farming in Maryland and Wicomico County: from the Beginning

Maryland is one of the six states that comprise the Chesapeake Bay watershed.  Early colonization records from the 1600’s reflect the overwhelming desire of many colonists to live in this temperate and beautiful area.  The colonizing of the Chesapeake Bay region began in 1607, and by 1635 the total count of European settlers was hovering around 5,000.  Population growth hardly stopped there, and in approximate fifty-year jumps the population increased from 19,500 in the year 1700, to 144,000 in 1750, and eventually by 1800 it reached a grand total of 1,150,000 people. [1]

Farming, while never the easiest way to make a living, could nonetheless be a true pleasure along the Eastern Shore.  Primarily two things, land availability and water availability, regulate the growing of any crop in Maryland.  As land in colonial Maryland in the 1600’s and 1700’s was easily available, the main limitation on the location of what was considered to be prime farmland was water.  With Maryland being the amply water-supplied state it is, it is no wonder then that the majority of colonial farmers chose to concentrate their farming efforts along rivers and streams.  Approximately 211 known farming sites from the 17th century have been identified in the state of Maryland, and of these 211 sites, 97% are within one mile of a major water source, and three-quarters of those are less than 1,000 feet from the shore. [2]  

The Eastern Shore of Maryland,  which is somewhat isolated from the rest of the state, still found itself to be of some small agricultural importance.  One of the earliest-grown crops in the county was tobacco – a popular and profitable plant that could be shipped overseas to Europe for consumption by royalty and commoner alike. [3]  Tobacco is a crop that rapidly depletes the levels of nitrogen and potash from the soil [4] , and as such if a farmer wished to grow tobacco in the same field for many years, he would need to re-energize the soil by returning these lost nutrients to it.  As land during the colonial period was for all intents and purposes plentiful and free (not considering the time and effort of clearing and plowing the land) farmers chose to simply turn over a new nearby acre or two of land and plant a fresh crop of tobacco rather than apply manure to an old field and return it to its previous fecundity:

“A superior tobacco could be produced only on fresh land, and after the second crop – usually the best – the quality and quantity began to decline.  The planter seldom counted on more than three or four crops from his land before it was abandoned to corn or wheat and then to the pine, sedge, and sorrel growths which usually characterize ‘sour lands.’  Only the freshest lands could be used for the staple whose yields means so much.  In fact, the terms ‘tobacco lands’ and ‘new lands’ soon became synonymous.  A constant clearing of the forest was carried on and a constant abandonment of ‘old fields’ followed at the other end.” [5]

This constant clearing and stripping of land meant that while large tracts of land lay open for use every year, only a small amount of them could/would actually be farmed.  Typically one farmer could properly care for only two or three acres of tobacco every year and perhaps only one or two additional acres of corn.  Once a field had served its purpose and had produced a crop for two or three years, it was considered to be fallow, or unable to produce another profitable crop, and the farmer would typically not return to that same spot of land for upwards of fifteen years. [6]  

            Farming during the earliest days of the colonial period on the Eastern Shore of Maryland was done mostly by hand in a careful and slow method that – quite unintentionally - preserved the health of the nearby Wicomico river.  After the land was cleared (frequently by either the “slash-and-burn” or girdling method) the soil (in essence a fertile 6” – 12” layer of forest mold) was hand-plowed with crude hoes [7] .  Then it was mounded into small hills into which each fledgling tobacco or corn plant was placed.  This method of planting crops in small hillocks or mounds prevented high levels of soil runoff into the Wicomico River, as it created a field so full of tiny hills that rainwater and dissolved topsoil became trapped and stayed in the field instead of running off into the river. [8]   


The Introduction of the Plow and the Initial Decline of the River

As technology advanced during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the plow slowly but surely replaced the hand-held hoe.  As such, farmers were able to do more than simply scrape at the surface of the soil when they were cultivating their crops or preparing their fields for planting.  According to Avery Craven in his seminal work Soil Exhaustion in Maryland and Virginia, 1606-1860:

 “…the heavy wooden plows of first days and the lighter shovel plow of later times, only ‘scratched’ the surface and exposed it to the same old heavy washing.  Even the best plows were little more than a ‘rough hewn stick’ for a beam, into which was framed another stick fitted at the end with a rude plate of bog iron.  Plows that would cut even to the depth of six inches did not come in until near the end of the eighteenth century and then only among the few.  It was another twenty-five years before they found a general acceptance and any wide use.” [9]   

However when plows did finally make their way into mainstream farming, they had a strong effect on the rapidly-worsening Wicomico River. 

With the advent of the plow, which was typically pulled by oxen or horses, a farmer could clear larger tracts of land than ever before, and could cultivate the soil to a much deeper level than was previously possible with hand-held tools.  This simultaneous clearing of land and loosening of the topsoil in fields up and down the length of the Wicomico River increased not only the freshwater runoff into the river, but increased the rate of soil erosion or runoff into the Wicomico as well.  It is estimated that approximately twenty five years after many of the fields in Maryland were first cleared with plows during the end of the 18th century, the majority of the topsoil from these fields was washed away into nearby rivers. [10]  After one period of particularly heavy rainfall the levels of soil washing into the James River were so great that they made the waves appear red.  One witness to this said that the color was so striking, that the river looked like a “Torrent of Blood”. [11]

      This increased silting of the Wicomico River not only made it difficult to travel the full length of the river in boats, [12] but it also altered the chemical balance of the river:

“Most sedimentation in the Chesapeake Bay is a product of natural processes such as shore erosion, which have occurred over thousands of years.  Sedimentation produced by the late 18th and 19th century agriculture was different.  Consisting largely of fertile topsoil, with a high phosphorous and nitrogen content, this sediment was mostly deposited in the tributaries of the Bay, especially the smaller rivers and creeks.  Such a major increase in siltation and the nutrient content of these waters must have had a profound impact upon the ecosystem, especially the benthic habitat.” [13]

These changes to the river, by no means the first, were also unfortunately far from the last.  Rather, they were a sign of the problems still yet to come for the Wicomico via soil runoff and nutrient enrichment.  While farming had effected the Wicomico in negative ways in the eighteenth century, technological advances in the nineteenth century were about to bring the Wicomico watershed firmly into the grasp of the rest of the nation, and the river would suffer for it.


Truck Farming Comes to the Shore

In the early to mid 1800’s, small family-run farms and communities dotted the length of the Wicomico River.  These farms were mostly subsistence farms, plots of land designed specifically to feed the farmer and his family and sell any potential leftovers to a local market or neighbor to earn some extra money.  By this time in Maryland as well as across the entire United States, farming methods had changed radically from the earlier colonial period.  Tobacco was a thing of the past, and with increased population levels and land prices skyrocketing up, farmers no longer owned or farmed as large tracts of land as they used to.  Rather efforts were now narrowly focused on significantly smaller tracts of land, and through the application of manure and the science of crop rotation, fields were able to be farmed for much longer periods of time.  Because of these changes, it was only the large farms with their huge tracts of available land and greater supply of slave or tenant labor that were able to profit off of the commercial agricultural market. [14]  

Sandwiched between the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic, and located directly along the Wicomico River, many local farmers were able to efficiently exploit these waterways to their advantages.  Oyster boats were among the first methods of transportation used to run perishable yet desirable crops from the fields and farms of Wicomico County to the cities of Baltimore and Philadelphia. [15]   However, these boats were not as fast as the farmers and merchants alike would have hoped, and in some cases profits were lost when the produce arrived at the market in rotten or otherwise undesirable forms. [16]   While some farmers were willing to risk the loss of a crop for the potential profit to be derived from a hungry market, others were not so financially daring, and instead chose to sell their crops to markets that were much closer to home at lower costs.  These farmers lost out on some of the larger profits that were to be had at the time, but they also kept away from the potential bankruptcies as well.

However, with the first development of the refrigerated railroad car in 1867, and the previous opening of the railroad lines that ran North and South after the end of the Civil War the small farmer’s lifestyle was uniformly and significantly changed. [17]   With the first railroad car connecting to Salisbury on July 4th, 1860 Wicomico County farmers now found themselves connected to markets along the rest of the Eastern Seaboard in a timely and reasonably secure fashion, and removed them from their previous positions of relative market isolation [18] .  Smaller farmers found themselves profiting with so-called “truck-crops,” or strawberries, cantaloupes, cucumbers, watermelons, and tomatoes, which all made their way from the Eastern Shore to markets throughout the Eastern United States and up into Canada. [19]   The Eastern Shore, known primarily in the early truck farming days as “The Peninsula,” was considered to be a “primary center for the trucking business…beginning at the north and east, we have first Long Island and then the Peninsula, including Delaware, parts of New Jersey, and the portions of Maryland and Virginia lying east of the Chesapeake Bay.” [20]  


An Eastern Shore Railroad Car

Photo courtesy of the Nabb Research Center, from the Tilghman Fertilizer Collection.


Truck farming is very different from other forms of farming in that it is the practice of growing specific crops (typically all with very short shelf lives) for the exclusive purpose of shipping to a distant market. [21]   For more than three decades, strawberries were the most profitable truck crop for Eastern Shore farmers.  First cultivated from the wild state in 1860, strawberries are a crop that grows very well on the Eastern Shore. [22] Public schools in Wicomico County were timed to let out for the year along with the harvesting of strawberries, and small children were a common sight out in the fields amongst their parents and older siblings on picking day.  From 1905 until approximately 1935, strawberries were consistently the crop with the highest profit level produced in Wicomico County.  Known collectively as strawberries coming from “The Peninsula,” Wicomico County berries were watched carefully by the Eastern Seaboard market owners and waited for just as eagerly by shoppers.  In 1881 there is formal record of markets in New York City having been supplied on a limited yet slowly-growing basis by Peninsula strawberries (most likely via boat transport), and the New York Times had this to say about the berries available that season:

“…the prediction of the Times in regard to both quantity and quality was fully verified.  Seldom have there been fewer poor berries offered in the market, and it is safe to assert that the quality of the berries that will come this week from Delaware and Maryland will be fully equal to those of Saturday, and the quantity on each day will be far in excess.  To-morrow not less than 400,000 quarts may be looked for from the Peninsula.” [23]    


In 1903 a long drought followed by unseasonably hot weather caused the entire season’s crop of strawberries from Wicomico to rot on their way to market, putting many Wicomico farmers into financial straits.  The New York Times reported that “…Pittsville, in Wicomico County, is a center of the berry-shipping business to Philadelphia and New York.  Half a dozen shippers there have lost $20,000 in a few days.  One large loser had three carloads sold for about a cent per quart which cost him 5 cents a quart at Pittsville…” [24]

The popularity and relatively easy money gained from strawberries advanced the way for other truck crops such as cucumbers, cantaloupes, watermelons, and tomatoes.  Total truck crop values in Maryland for 1929 was a whopping $11,427,000 according to S.R. Newell, the agricultural statistician for Maryland and Delaware, making it a valuable venture indeed. [25]   For almost thirty years Wicomico County was one of the nation’s leading truck crop sources, and the county annually shipped up to thirty-two different types of fruits and vegetables to the storage markets of the eastern United States via refrigerated cars. [26]   One such market that Eastern Shore farmers would ship to was the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  The Reading market was considered a classic example of a “storage house,” i.e. a large facility equipped such that the grower can first ship, then store produce items to a market far away.  Then, due to early methods of climate control within the building in addition to careful packing and storing of the fruits and vegetables, the farmers were able to contract to successfully sell them each week during the entire season, and hence not have to work through a middle man and lose valuable profits. [27]


Reading Terminal Market circa 1900 [28]


Tomatoes were also profitable for farmers along the Eastern Shore in the early 1900’s.  Due to the Gulf Stream and the surrounding waterways, the Eastern Shore has a relatively mild climate and averages 210 growing days every year. [29]   It is this mildness that allows tomatoes to ripen on the vine well before the first frosts threaten.  This long growing period makes both tomato growing and tomato canning a very profitable business for both Eastern Shore farmers and businessmen alike, and although droughts and unseasonable frosts in the early 1900’s caused some early animosity between tomato canners and tomato growers, tomato growing remained a profitable business for almost half a century.  In 1950 Wicomico County had the largest acreage of tomatoes harvested in the entire state of Maryland, [30] ; [31] with tomato growers delivering their wares to multiple canneries that were spaced only ten or fifteen miles apart. [32]   In 1960 tomatoes took over as the most valuable crop for Wicomico farmers to plant, as the strawberry and other rapid-ripening fruit markets were monopolized by California. [33]   In 1960 the tomato brought in approximately $3,648,000 alone, with an average yield of 11.0 tons harvested per acre. [34]  

These truck crops were not merely a simple and profitable switch for local farmers, but rather they demanded a very different method of farming than had been previously practiced.  Truck farming is a way of farming that is highly labor-intensive.  Tomatoes, as an example, require tremendous amounts of labor per acre, especially when compared to other crops such as wheat or the earlier-farmed tobacco.  Tomatoes are notoriously fragile plants that cannot stand cold weather, and as such during cold nights need to be protected.  This requires that individual shelters be constructed, or that each staked tomato plant be draped with some sort of protective sheeting.  The young plants need to be pinched and pruned almost daily, and eventually when they are deemed tall enough, they need to be staked. 


An Eastern Shore farmer shielding his young tomato plants from frost

Photo courtesy of the Nabb Research Center, from the Tilghman Fertilizer Collection.


      Mature tomato plants need to be inspected for insects – some of which, for example the tomato hornworm, can do tremendous amounts of damage in a short amount of time.  Foliar sprays are typically applied to tomatoes, both to nourish the plants and to kill off any detrimental insects that are along for the ride.  Tomatoes also require highly-regulated amounts of fertilizer.  Enough nitrogen needs to be applied to keep the tomatoes growing properly, yet add too much and the leaves and stems will outmatch the fruit, and what little fruit there is will be subject to blossom-end rot, a condition that can ruin an entire crop of tomatoes in a matter of weeks. 

Once the tomatoes reach maturity and the fruit is ready to be harvested, this again requires a tremendous work force to harvest and load the entire crop.  A lack of able-bodied workers and the new wage and hour laws that came about as a result of the altered labor market after WWII were a problem for many local farmers and canners, and as a result their profit margins suffered somewhat compared to their less-isolated brethren. [35]   The canning industry as a whole was greatly bolstered by the first and second World Wars.  World War I caused the canning industry across the United States, but specifically on the Eastern Shore, to peak rapidly. [36]   High government demands for canned foodstuffs that could be sent overseas to fighting troops quickly upped the demand on local canneries.  These demands for all sorts of crops, not only tomatoes, were at their peak when the war ended, and canneries were left with tremendous surpluses of cases and cartons of canned tomatoes and other field rations.  This surplus, and the simultaneous threat of competition from up and coming canneries and farms on the West Coast, put several canning companies on the Eastern Shore out of business. [37]   Those canneries that were able to survive profited again from the demands placed on them by the government during World War II.  However, after the war a combination of changing labor laws, geographical isolation, and changing family values brought about the beginnings of financial hardship for the majority of the canneries. [38]   The slow but steady spread of chicken-feed crops such as wheat, corn, and soybeans that had started competing as a demand for growing space did not help the tomato canners either.  A few stalwart souls, via supplementation of their tomato crop markets with dried fruit and frozen vegetable production were able to stay open far beyond the end of World War II. [39]   However, by the mid 1960’s and early 1970’s the tomato farmers and numerous active tomato canneries were largely a thing of Maryland’s past. [40]

While the overall effects of truck crops on the Wicomico River was not nearly as bad as the feed crops that followed, there is no doubt that they nonetheless impacted the river in a negative way.  Fertilizers were heavily applied, and excesses were washed into the Wicomico.  Tomato canneries discharged their peels and cores into the rivers with un-regulated or formally documented impunity and volume, causing the Wicomico River to turn red as a result. [41]   Due to increased population levels and more efficient methods of transportation, the Eastern Shore was no longer as isolated as it had been in the past, and consequently available farmland was greatly reduced.  This increased demand for farmland resulted in smaller farms, and therefore more intensive methods of farming were pursued, including the practice of fields being more heavily and constantly planted.  This increase in planting and soil turnover slowly but surely contributed to the rise of siltation levels in the Wicomico.


The Rise of the Chicken

The popularity of broiler chickens for human consumption was first stumbled upon as a phenomena in 1926 when Mrs. Wilmer Steele of Delaware sent to market a flock of younger chickens than was normally available for purchase. [42]   The rapid (and profitable) purchase of these tender young birds led others to follow her lead, and a strong supply and demand for broiler chickens was soon established.  With this supply and following consumer demand, the business of farming on the Eastern shore, environmentally speaking, slowly but surely took a change for the worse.  Truck crops such as strawberries, cantaloupes, cucumbers, watermelons, and tomatoes were already being phased out as the most profitable crop to farm due to competition from the Southern and Western regions of the United States.  Soon, large tracts of monoculture crops (crops that are cultivated over a large region year after year) [43] such as corn, soybeans and wheat were widely sown in order to feed the booming poultry industry. [44]   Chickens eat massive amounts of feed (typically mixtures of corn, soybeans, and wheat) in the industry’s race to create full-sized broiler chickens as quickly and efficiently as possible.  As Wicomico County was one of the top-producing agricultural counties in the state of Maryland, it seemed only logical at the time for the farmers who were beginning to raise chickens to likewise grow their own chicken feed, which was needed in copious amounts. [45]

Once the chicken market was firmly established on the Eastern Shore, the truck crops slowly but surely began to fade away.  Over time as farm after farm was taken over by the feathered money-makers and fields were tilled and sowed to produce their feed, the neat and tidy rows of cucumbers or tomatoes vanished.  Instead, larger amounts of fertilizer, insecticides, and chicken manure took their place.  Corn and wheat are two crops that are grown successfully on a large scale as long as the farmer has access to correspondingly large amounts of fertilizer and insecticide.  Corn, particularly, is a greedy plant that needs to be frequently and heavily fertilized and thoroughly covered in insecticide. [46]   These high levels of insecticide and fertilizer created a dangerous situation when the excesses were washed away by summer rains into nearby rivers. [47]   Wheat and soybeans with their lush leaves likewise require heavy treatments with insecticides, [48] which also washed off into the river during heavy summer or fall rains.  What the general public did not know, especially the farmers who so eagerly embraced these miracle sprays and treatments, was that they were applying with their own hands the very toxins that would kill so many and do such damage.


A fertilizer trial on Eastern Shore cornfields

Photo courtesy of the Nabb Research Center, from the Tilghman Fertilizer Collection.


DDT and the Downward Spiral of the River

            One popular and extremely toxic feed-crop insecticide that was used heavily throughout the United States and Wicomico County from the mid 1940’s until the late 1970’s was DDT.  Dicholor-diphenyl-trichloro-ethane (DDT) was first created by a German chemist in 1874, but its insecticidal properties were not known until the late 1930’s.  Once the chemical was determined to be a highly effective and cost-efficient insecticide, the U.S. military wasted no time putting it into action during World War II. [49]   At first restricted to overseas use, DDT was approved for civilian purchase and use in 1945: “…DDT will go to the public in limited quantities as long as military requirements remain at current levels, the WPB (War Production Board) said.” [50]   Once civilians were allowed to use DDT, production levels began to rise and it seemed that just about everyone wanted to add DDT to their product and market it to the general public.  Sherman-Williams manufactured a paint containing DDT for inside use in 1945, [51] while the United Wallpaper company manufactured a DDT-impregnated wallpaper designed for children’s nurseries.  Adorned with images of Disney characters such as Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, the wallpaper was touted as being so efficient that “Washing and the accumulation of dust and dirt do not interfere with the insect-killing properties, which are guaranteed for one year, it was said.  The DDT incorporated in both background and pattern colors is said to be non-injurious to humans and domestic animals.” [52]

            Despite these reassurances from the War Production Board and wallpaper companies, many scientists of the day were still quite worried about the effect that widespread use of DDT could have on the environment and humans.  Warnings abounded from almost the first day that DDT was declared available for public use, but for the majority of the American public, the good of DDT far outweighed the potential bad.  DDT was sprayed along the East Coast and on the Eastern Shore to reduce the levels of mosquitoes, while the polio scare of the 1940’s and 1950’s was temporarily (and erroneously) treated via DDT. [53]   Even the worrisome and noticeable drop in population levels of bald eagles, ospreys, and other large birds of prey that was quickly linked to DDT did not deter most members of the American public from using DDT on a frequent basis. 

            On farms, DDT was put into heavy and immediate rotation as a highly effective insecticide.  In Wicomico County, the Wm. B. Tilghman Company was one of the largest fertilizer and insecticide sources for the area, and as such made a serious profit selling insecticides such as DDT, DDD, and 2, 4-D to local area farmers. [54]   In the 1940’s and 1950’s the science to measure a field’s soil and pre-determine the exact level of fertilizer or insecticide needed was not yet available to the average farmer.  As such the amounts of fertilizer and insecticides that they applied to their crops were generally higher than today’s accepted standard levels. [55]   It was only once the scientific and public outcry against DDT rose to such a pitch that lawmakers started responding.  More than 80 countries banned the use of DDT beginning in the early 1970’s, and yet the effects of DDT were so strong and so prevailing that we are still suffering their effects today. [56]  


Fertilizer being applied to an Eastern Shore field prior to planting

Photo courtesy of the Nabb Research Center, from the Tilghman Fertilizer Collection.


This over-application of fertilizers and use of insecticides such as DDT on nearby farms had truly detrimental effects on the nearby Wicomico River.  Excess amounts of nitrogen and phosphorous caused various aquatic species, particularly varieties of fast-growing algae, to increase rapidly.  This over growth of algae set into motion a series of biological events that eventually led to a situation where there was virtually no available oxygen in the waters of the Wicomico.  This condition, known as anoxia, lead to the death of many benthic, or bottom dwelling creatures such as oysters and certain species of fish.  Those animals that were able to survive these anoxic conditions were by no means the lucky ones.  They were then faced with surviving the double impact of increased siltation in the water due to topsoil erosion, as well as the toxic levels of insecticides in the river.  The animals that were not killed by the anoxic conditions did not survive the soil-saturated waters or the toxic streams.  While there is a lack of documentation on the topic by the popular media , popular opinion holds that the numbers of oysters and fish in the river greatly declined between the years of 1950 and 1970.  It was only during the mid-1970’s that the clamoring from environmentalists and scientists sharpened the focus on the polluted rivers of the Chesapeake Bay and those waters that flowed into it.  It has been approximately thirty years since the sickness of the Wicomico was first noticed, and there is still no swimming is allowed in its waters.  Fishing is allowed, but only on a limited basis, and eating the catch from the river is done, but is not always considered a wise idea.  Chicken farming is still a hugely profitable business on the Eastern Shore, and environmentalists and lawmakers are still struggling over whether or how to get poultry and vegetable farmers to change their practices.  However, one hope for the future health of the river shines in a small yet determined group of organic farmers who have vowed to find sustainable ways to feed the many while harming none. 


A Change From the Past and a Hope for the Future

One such hopeful believer is Jay Martin, an organic farmer who has lived in Wicomico County for twenty years, sixteen of which he has spent farming on a professional basis. [57]   Speaking with Jay about farming is both an exhilarating and dizzying experience.  Topped with a thick thatch of ginger-gray hair, lined of face and exceedingly handsome, Jay is capable of integrating talk of nitrogen levels with the quotations of poet/farmer Wendell Barry seamlessly in the same sentence, leaving those who are less well-read in the proverbial dust.  Jay has owned his own four acres of farmland for over fifteen years, during which time he has practiced a multitude of organic farming methods.  These methods have included scrupulously testing the soil for nutrient levels, adding natural fertilizers and soil amendments only as necessary, and practicing a form of natural insect management called Integrated Pest Management.  These changes from “typical” commercial farming create a tremendous amount of difference to Jay, his market audience, and the environment around him. 

Jay tends to spend a tremendous amount of time on his fields, storing up copious amounts of knowledge on every plant, every seedling, and trespassing insects for later musings and treatment ideas.  This intimate knowledge of his land, combined with a body of farming knowledge and lore that is both great and diverse has helped Jay to make decisions about his land with an eye towards the future – a concept that is none too common in today’s day and age of rented farmland and management decisions decided upon only for their immediate returns. [58]   While this increased time out in the field and lack of reliance on cheaper and more harmful crop treatments can raise the prices of Jay’s vegetables, he has nonetheless found a dedicated audience who is consistently willing to pay slightly more money for organic produce for the sake of their health and that of the land around them.  Jay’s supply of produce, created as it is, and the willingness of consumers to keep up a steady demand for it, is a relationship that significantly benefits the Wicomico river shed and the area immediate surrounding it.  Reduced soil erosion due to more cautious farming practices, greatly reduced levels of nitrogen and phosphorous entering the river due to the more-careful monitoring of soil needs, and a complete lack of poisonous insecticides to eventually make their way into the river all add up to a very different present and future for the Wicomico River and those who live on or work around it. 

The story of farming in the Wicomico River watershed area is not simply one of supply and demand.  From tobacco farming in the colonial period to truck crops in the mid 1800’s and early 1900’s to chicken feed today, farmers have been yanked to and fro by the American public, market demands, and the desire to make a large amount of money they best way they know how.  These factors, while putting a strain on the farming industry as a whole, have put an even more serious strain on the farmland and on the Wicomico River.  From increased siltation rates to fertilizer runoff to toxic insecticides the river has had to pay the price for America’s desire for cigarettes, fresh tomatoes, and chicken drumsticks.  While the situation of the Wicomico is not yet one where environmentalists and scientists alike can breathe sighs of relief, it is currently improving from its worst state and people with the ability to make instrumental changes concerning the health of the river are finally paying attention.  Raised awareness and governmental regulations are playing their part in helping to improve the fate of the river, but it is when the farmers, the very stewards of the land, those who tread its length and breadth daily, start to make a significant change, it is then that even the most skeptical will begin to see the faint glimmerings of hope on the horizon.


[1] David O. Percy.  “Ax or Plow?: Significant Colonial Landscape Alteration Rates in the Maryland and Virginia Tidewater.”  Agricultural History.  66 no.2 (1992): p.68.

[2] Henry M. Miller.  “Transforming a ‘Splendid and Delightsome Land’: Colonists and Ecological Change in the Chesapeake 1607-1820”  Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences.  76 no. 3 (1986): p. 174.

[3] Miller, p. 174.

[4] Avery Odelle Craven.  Soil Exhaustion as a Factor in the Agricultural History of Virginia and Maryland, 1606-1860.  (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1926)  p. 32.

[5] Craven, p. 32.

[6]   Miller, p. 174.

[7] Percy, p.71.

[8]   Miller, p. 174.

[9]   Craven, p. 35.

[10]   Miller, p. 183.

[11]   Miller, p. 183.

[12]   Miller, p. 183.

[13]   Miller, p. 183.

[14]   Steven Sarson.  “Landlessness and Tenancy in Early National Prince George’s County, Maryland.” William and Mary Quarterly.  57 no. 3 (2000): p. 575.

[15] F.S. Earle.  “Development of the Trucking Interests” Yearbook of the United States Department of Agriculture.  (Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1900): p. 439.

[16]   Earle, p. 444.x

[17] George H. Corddry, Editor.  Wicomico County History: Chapter IX:  Farming, by Louise D. Harcum.  (Salisbury: Peninsula Press, 1981): p. 106.

[18]   John C. Hayman.  Rails along the Chesapeake:   A history of railroading on the Delmarva Peninsula.  (Marvadel Publishing, 1979): p. 66.

[19]   Corddry, p. 106.

[20]   Earle, p. 437.

[21]   Earle, p. 437.

[22]   Charles J. Truitt.  Historic Salisbury Maryland.  (New York: Country Life Press, 1932): p. 138.

[23] Anonymous.  “Miscellaneous City News: Fruit in the Markets”  New York Times (May 30, 1881): p. 5.

[24]   Anonymous.  “Strawberries Go A-Begging”  New York Times (June 2, 1903): p. 1.

[25]   Anonymous.  “Maryland Crops Value Up”  Wall Street Journal (February 28, 1930): p. 12.

[26] Historic Salisbury Updated: 1662-1982.  By Charles J. Truitt.  1982.  p. 177.

[27]   Influence of Refrigeration on Fruit Industry.  William A. Taylor.  Yearbook of the United States Department of Agriculture.  1900.  Government Printing Office, Washington D.C.  p.572.

[28] Taylor, plate XXI.

[29]   Corddry, p. 103

[30]   Anonymous.  “County News”  The Wicomico News.  (August 28, 1902).

[31] Corddry, p. 108.

[32] R. Lee Burton.  Canneries of the Eastern Shore.  (Centreville: Maryland, Tidewater Publishers, 1986): p. 155.

[33] Burton, p. 54.

[34]   Anonymous.  “Farm Notes”  The Tiller: A Journal for the Country Home.  18 no. 5 (Nov. – Dec. 1960).

[35]   Burton, p. 55.

[36] Burton, p. 54.

[37] Burton, p. 54.

[38] Burton, p. 56.

[39] Burton, p. 159.

[40]   Corddry, p. 108.

[41]   Burton, p.56.

[42] Truitt, p. 177.

[43]   E. Levetin and K. McMahon.  Plants and Society.  (Dubuque: Wm. C. Brown Publishing, 1966)

[44] Truitt, p. 178.

[45] Truitt, p. 178.

[46]   Mike Gray and K. Steffey.  “Insect Pest Management for Field and Forage Crops”  Department of Crop Sciences and the Illinois Natural History Survey.  Online document:

[47]   Tom Horton.  Bay Country.  (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987): p. 28-29.

[48] Gray, p. 13.

[49]   Rachel Carson.  Silent Spring.  (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1962): p.20.

[50]   Anonymous.  “Public to Receive DDT Insecticide.”  New York Times (July 27, 1945): p. 17.

[51]   Anonymous.  “DDT Mixed in Wall Paint Keeps Flies from Rooms.”  New York Times (August 24, 1945): p. 21.

[52]   Anonymous.  “Printed Wallpaper is Treated with DDT”  New York Times.  (April 26, 1947): p. 16.

[53]   Anonymous.  “Entire Town Sprayed with DDT”  New York Times (August 21, 1946): p. 22.

[54]   Wm. B. Tilghman Company.  “Agricultural Chemicals”  Sales Flyer, 1966: Nabb Research Center, Salisbury, Maryland. 

[55]   Wm. B. Tilghman Company.  “Set Your Goal”  Sales Flyer, 1966: Nabb Research Center, Salisbury, Maryland.

[56]   John Murply.  “To South Africa risky DDT again a malaria miracle.”  The Baltimore Sun.  Telegraph; Section 1A.

[57]   Jay Martin.  Personal communication.  April 28, 2002.

[58]   Jay Martin, 2002.

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