December 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 8
Some years ago a magazine asked J. Paul Getty to write an article to be entitled “The Secret of My Success.” Getty agreed, and a short time later the manuscript arrived in the mail. It read, in its entirety, “Some people find oil; others don’t.” Earlier, Commodore Vanderbilt is supposed to have explained his own economic success by noting simply that “I seen my opportunities and I took ’em.”
Both Vanderbilt and Getty, of course, found opportunities that made them rich almost beyond counting, and as a result, their stories have been told many times and at much greater length than their own one-sentence forays into autobiography. But in this respect economic history is much like military history, for it is usually generals and admirals, not Pfc.’s and able seamen, however brave, who are remembered and memorialized. Likewise, for every Getty and Vanderbilt there have been tens of thousands of others who also saw their opportunities in the American economy and took them.
For these people, the opportunities they seized resulted not in the making of great fortunes but only in good lives well lived and still greater opportunities for their children. And that, not unbounded wealth, is the real essence of the American dream. The stories of these people are often no less stirring, their accomplishments no less real, their legacies no less rich, than the stories of multimillionaires.
Consider an area of New York State, about sixty miles from Times Square by land—and vastly farther in spirit—that is known as the black dirt country.
At the end of the last ice age, ten thousand years ago, a glacier left behind a shallow lake in southern Orange County, drained by the Wallkill River. The Wallkill runs, most unusually for an American river, northward; but it does so only reluctantly, and its sluggish flow often spills out over its banks to this day despite numerous attempts to contain it. The lake, soon choked with reeds, slowly disappeared as the rotting vegetation built up. In time it became a seasonal swamp dotted with the limestone uprises that had once been islands.
The soil created by this lost lake is almost wholly organic matter. Left undisturbed, it would have become a peat bog and eventually a coal seam. At the stage it is in now it is known, technically, as muck soil. Orange County, with a total of twenty-six thousand acres, had more of it in one spot than any place else in the United States except the Florida Everglades.
The early settlers of the region were upland farmers accustomed to welldrained soil. They turned the short, once-wooded hills and small valleys of Orange County into dairy farms and fruit orchards. In dry years they ran cattle in the swamp and cut the white cedar that grew there for firewood. Numerous projects were proposed to drain the so-called drowned lands, but the Wallkill River proved intractable.
In the middle of the nineteenth century some of the farmers drained and cleared a little of the swampland and discovered how extraordinarily rich the deep black soil was. But because they were intimidated by the work involved in making it productive, nothing much came of it. But then a group of Polish and Volga German immigrants who had been living in New York City and working in the area as seasonal help on the farms saw the opportunities presented by the black dirt and took ’em.
Unlike most of Western Europe, many areas of Eastern Europe are lowlying and poorly drained. Once these areas were made fit for agriculture, however, they became extremely productive. The black dirt in Orange County, the newcomers recognized immediately, was much the same.
Because the drowned lands were largely regarded as useless, the impoverished immigrants were able to buy small parcels very cheaply and, with a vast investment of “sweat equity,” begin the backbreaking task of making it economically fruitful. Families with names like Poloniak, Bogdanski, Gurda, and Wierzbicki began to set down roots near the tiny town of Pine Island, located on one of the limestone uprises in the middle of the black dirt. Volga Germans founded the town of Little York on its eastern rim.
The first step to reclaiming the land was drainage. Muck soil is like no other. Behaving like a sponge, it soaks up water and holds it in large quantities. The exposed soil on top dries quickly, but the crust then holds in the moisture below. Jumping up and down on it causes it to tremble for yards around like a gigantic bowl of black JeIl-O. Ditches several feet deep had to be dug by hand in a checkerboard fashion, dividing the land into fields an acre or so in size.
Next, the wild vegetation had to be cleared. The trees could be cut down, and the stumps burned, but this was risky. Once drained, the soil, being nearly pure organic matter, caught fire easily and could burn underground for weeks, creating sinkholes into which people and even horses and wagons could suddenly vanish, sometimes years after the fire was extinguished. Instead, most stumps were laboriously cut free of their roots and then pulled by teams of horses.
Under these conditions, the new landowners could clear only an acre or two of land a year at best. But once it was cleared, what land it was. Because the muck soil is rich, stone-free, and deep (it averages four to twentyfive feet and in spots is rumored to be as much as sixty feet deep), it is ideal for truck farming and, when flood, wind, and insect don’t interfere, immensely productive.
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 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?