Friday, July 19, 2013

Contributions of the Massachusetts Society for Promoting Agriculture

As noted previously, the publications of state and regional agricultural societies, and the networks joining them to the local press and elite institutions, were direct precursors of the farm press. The Massachusetts Society for Promoting Agriculture, founded in 1792, was not the first such society (it was preceded by South Carolina, Pennsylvania, and New York) but it surely had the most distinguished membership (including Samuel Adams, Charles Bulfinch, Timothy Pickering, John Hancock, and John Adams, who served as its president for several years). In addition to encouraging experiments and offering significant reward money for discoveries, the MSPA mission included communicating such discoveries to the public, and this it did through essay contests and house publications, excerpts of which were available for newspaper content.

The MSPA, particularly compared to its Pennsylvania counterparts, was a not a major driver of the bird protection movement, but it did contribute some early and enduring texts that would be taken up by the movement in decades to come.

The first text was a passage in a prize winning 1795 essay on the natural history of the canker worm, written by the entomologist, W.D. Peck, first published in Massachusetts Magazine and then republished in various newspapers and in the farm press as late as 1827 (New England Farmer). [Update: as late as 1840!] Peck explored natural controls on the canker worm and came up with a surprising candidate.
The principal check provided by nature, upon the too great increase of this insect is the Ampelis Garulas of Linnaeus, called by Mr. Catesby, The Chatterer of Carolina, and in the Rev. Dr. Belknap's history of New-Hampshire, cherry-bird. This bird destroys great numbers of them while in the larva state. 
This would be the cedar waxwing, a bird commonly vilified as a fruit stealer, to which even Alexander Wilson gave little support.

The second text was a reprint from a British source included in the 1799 issue of Papers on Agriculture, consisting of communications made to the Massachusetts Society for Promoting Agriculture, with extracts from various publications; recommended to the attention of farmers, by The Trustees of the Society. The topic: the usefulness of swallows (see earlier post on British swallow protection discussion).

Aaron Dexter, prominent Boston physician and long-time MSPA officer, was the contributor, endorsing the piece as follows:
I have been induced to hand the preceding observations to the Trustees of the Massachusetts Society for promoting Agriculture, as believing them true, and to induce every farmer in the country to make all the conveniences for swallows in his power; as perhaps, no country more abounds with devouring insects. 
The original piece was written by the Scottish Rev. David Ure.  Ure wrote that the swallow's utility in controlling harmful insects was greater than other birds because it fed on the flying parent insects, not just insect larvae.
It is believed, by accurate observers, that one nest of Swallows will destroy, in a season, about 100,000 insects, which, with their caterpillars, would destroy an immense quantity of growing vegetables. Another advantage arising from the Swallow is, that it never lives on grain, which is not the case with most other birds.
This article (along with Dexter's endorsement) ran in several newspapers, including the Columbian Centinel, but like Peck's piece, had a longer reprint history in the farm press, running as late as 1828, for example, in the New England Farmer.

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