2011-02-10 / News

Conanicut Grange Report

By Bob Sutton

Sometime during the mid- 1920s, George Anderson, a Jamestown farmer at the north end of the island, unbolted the chassis of his aging Model T Ford car, built a seat behind the steering wheel, put some wheel chains on the rear tires and in less than a morning’s work, converted his aging “go-to-town” sedan into a workable farm tractor.

George was not unique in his inventiveness. According to Gordon Schindler, author of “Model T Catalog of Accessories,” throughout the country there were hundreds of homemade efforts to convert old Model T’s into useful farm vehicles.

Additionally, several companies in the first quarter of the 20th century manufactured and sold conversion kits. One of them, the Knickerbockers Motor Company, advertised that its conversion kit “will turn anyone of the million odd Fords in the country into an efficient tractor for all kinds of farm purposes with the efficiency of a four horse team for plowing, cultivating and hauling.”

At the time that George and others were converting their Model T Fords, there were over 26 million horses doing this country’s heavy farm work. But that was changing quickly and they were about to lose their jobs.

Manufacturers like Ford, John Deere and many others recognized early on the huge potential marketplace. By the end of the 1920s, there were more than 180 manufacturers building tractors in the United States. Although most of them went quickly out of business, the strong companies survived and by the end of the 1940s there were more than 5 million farm tractors working the soil and fewer than 1 million horses.

Petroleum-powered tractors and steam-powered railroads formed the leading edge of the industrialization of agriculture and provided the mechanical horsepower necessary to transform a nation of small farms into a nation of supermarkets in less than 50 years. In 2011, less than 1 percent of the food Rhode Islanders eat is grown or produced in Rhode Island. Our normal meal travels more than 1,500 miles to get to our table providing us no more of a clue of its origins than the pretty, but probably inaccurate, picture on the can, box or plastic shrink wrap that it arrives in.

It probably never occurred to Anderson that morning that transforming his old Model T was such a “revolutionary act.” In his book “The Unsettling of America, Culture and Agriculture,” Wendell Berry writes, “The industrialization of farming as we now have it is not something farmers would have bought all in a piece: as a group they have been too traditional or conservative for that. Instead it has been sold to them in stages, one implement at a time.”

One can easily speculate that Anderson’s motivation was “Yankee thrif,” no more complicated than wanting to get some work done without having to always harness up the team of horses. Consistent with that, Berry writes that the farmers were drawn into a systematic industrialization of agriculture not as visionaries of the future but as hard working people “yearning for relief from weariness and worry.”

Out standing in the field

If you look out over the cold snow-covered fields and pastures of Jamestown, you see farm animals standing silently, seemingly indifferent to their icy world. For the most part, New England’s domestic farm animals are well adapted to winter temperatures. If they can find a place out of the wind and it is not raining a sleety icy rain, all is well. It is the farmers, charged with providing their animals daily feed and water, that are most tormented by winter. Water freezes, tractors won’t start, equipment breaks or the truck gets stuck. Winter is tough on mechanical farm infrastructure and even tougher on the bundled-up human farmers, outstanding in their field, hoping for an early spring.

What’s available in Jamestown?

Dutra Farm: Hay, 42 Weeden Lane, 662-5686

Hodgkiss Farm: Closed for the season

Watson Farm: Grass-fed Red Devon Beef, lamb, Conanicut Island and Rhody warm wool blankets, 455 North Main Road, 423-0005, open Thursdays, 3 to 6 p.m.

Windmist Farm: Grass-fed beef and pork products, eggs, 71 Weeden Lane, open Fridays, 3 to 6 p.m., and Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Coastal Growers Winter Farmers’ Market: North Kingstown, 650 Ten Rod Road, open Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Return to top