Sowing The American Dream

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In the early days a wide variety of vegetables was grown for the burgeoning New York market so close by. From the beginning, however, onions were usually the most profitable crop. Today the Orange County black dirt country produces on average thirty thousand pounds of onion per acre, and some areas of it average more than sixty thousand.

Onion farming, however, especially in the early days, was extremely laborintensive. At first there was no machinery designed to deal with onions, and they had to be planted, weeded, and harvested entirely by hand, often by people who were down on their knees for most of the day. To relieve the hard labor and increase productivity, the people of the black dirt country soon began to design their own homemade onion planters and harvesters.

Onions, unlike many vegetables, lend themselves to mechanical agriculture. The mechanization of onion farming led, in turn, to more and more of the black dirt country’s being given over to onions, with all the advantages and disadvantages of monocultural husbandry.

The success of truck farming caused the value of the land to soar. In the 1880s it could be bought for about ten dollars an acre. Twenty years later it was worth two hundred dollars and, by the 1960s, three thousand dollars an acre. The once desperately poor Polish and Volga German farmers, who had at first lived in shacks on their black dirt acres, began to build substantial houses and barns on the “islands” that rose above the black dirt.

As more and more muck soil was brought under cultivation, the original small farms, worked by individual families, coalesced into larger ones to take advantage of economies of scale and to compensate for the loss of labor caused by children and grandchildren moving into other professions. Today there are several farms of more than a thousand acres, and one of more than twenty-five hundred is among the larger businesses in the county.

The stories of these people are often no less stirring, their legacies no less rich, than the stories of multimillionaires.

The tides of capitalism, however, are seldom still. The proximity to New York City that was once one of the black dirt country’s greatest assets has now turned into a liability. The drop in transportation costs have made more distant areas competitive in the New York market, while the state’s swiftly rising property taxes have had a major impact on profitability. “Fifteen or twenty years ago,” Walter Chimelowski recently explained to The New York Times , “it cost $300 to produce an acre of onions, and we’d get $5 or $6 per 100 pounds. Today, it’s $1,400 to produce an acre of onions, and last fall we only got $7 or $8.”

To make matters worse, the black dirt country produces a pungent, richly flavored onion that has now gone out of fashion. For reasons that no one is quite sure of, a Texas-developed hybrid known as granex, when grown in the light, sandy soil of southeastern Georgia, produces an extraordinarily mild, sweet onion. Sophisticated marketing of these onions, under the appellation Vidalia, has taken away much of the business.

In other areas near New York City, including Orange County, property taxes have brought about the residential development of much of the farmland. But that is not a solution to the current problems of the black dirt country. The muck soil, perfect for growing vegetables, is useless for houses. The deep, loose, stone-free soil makes a very poor footing for buildings (that’s the origin of the Tower of Pisa’s problem), and unless the ditches are faithfully maintained, the land will soon revert to swamp.

As a consequence, black dirt farmers are turning to other crops, lessening their reliance on onions alone. Celery, radishes, lettuce, and endive all are increasingly important. More and more often these are being sold directly at retail to fancy restaurants and at New York City’s burgeoning farmers’ markets. Another crop recently introduced is sod, and now more than 10 percent of the black dirt country is devoted to its production. There is little doubt that one of the most agriculturally productive areas in the United States will adapt to changing conditions.

It was luck and black gold that lifted J. Paul Getty to the ranks of the superrich. It was hard work, onions, and black dirt that transformed a group of impoverished Eastern European peasants into middle-class Americans. Which is the greater aspect of the American dream?