Though many would undoubtedly find it dull reading, one of my more interesting books is a hardcover 1894 600-page yearbook put out by the United States Department of Agriculture.

There are no plot twists or steamy sex scenes but there is real history though the book was never intended to be a history book. The purpose of the book when written was to give an overview of the progress of agriculture during that year. There is an introductory report by the secretary of agriculture where he discusses emerging foreign markets and worldwide trends. Generally the book contains reports on the production of livestock and agricultural crops in the U.S.

There is a section on the concern for depleted soils, especially in Eastern states. That section includes a chemical analysis of manure and its benefits to soil. There is a section on horses since in 1894 horsepower meant real horse power. There are tables on farm wages and crop and livestock prices. ($500 per year was considered a livable wage for farm workers.) There is a section discussing emerging truck farming and the vast capital ($6,000-$20,000) required each year to meet expenses for some of the larger producers of fruits and vegetables.

If the book has a theme, it would be the emphasis on science and scientific discoveries and their application to agriculture.

There is a section devoted to the problem of insects both in the field and in stored grain and how to deal with them. Another section goes into considerable detail on hawks and owls dividing them into four different classes: Wholly beneficial, chiefly beneficial, about equal beneficial and harmful, and totally harmful with respect to farming enterprises.

It is interesting that the writer of that section makes a passionate plea to not treat all hawks as chicken hawks, understanding the hawk circling the field is looking for mice or small rodents, and so, does the farmer a favor. He references studies, which examined the contents of the digestive systems of hundreds of different hawks from several different species, and what they found was surprising. The most common food source for many was larger insects along with mice. Hawks and owls are protected today but not in 1894 and were routinely killed sometimes just for sport.

The book contains a section on dairy farming, feed and pasture requirements, and the price of milk. A pathogen present in infected dairy cattle, a form of tuberculosis, was being spread to humans through infected milk. The book contains several pages of pictures and diagrams with instructions on the pasteurization and sterilization of milk to ensure its safety for human consumption.

What makes this a good history book is that it was never intended to be, so it is a snapshot of a year in agriculture in the U.S. before tractors and pesticides with mostly facts, and free from politics or biased points of view.

Some of its science was sometimes not wholly accurate but we have the benefit of hindsight, and it is interesting to read about a way of life that worked without the man-made chemical revolution of modern times.

A life-long resident of northern Minnesota, Terry Mejdrich is a former math teacher and farmer turned mystery author and freelance writer.

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