Skip to main content

Food Networks


1863 illustration in the "Genesee Farmer" depicts a scheme for mechanized farming called "Halkett's Guideway Steam Culture" the journal deemed "more imagination than reality." But the application of industrial logic proved successful: modern harvesters and combines use similar principles.

From the colonial era until the mid-19th century, farmers in the countryside of Western New York were part of widespread networks of economic exchange. During this time most people, including Sheffield Peabody, were able to feed themselves by producing their own food, but as these agricultural practices began to change due to industrialization the social practices did too. Many positive aspects of the 19th-century food network have been forgotten today. By 1861, Sheffield was working to establish a business for himself, where family friends and neighbors worked the land for corn, beans, wheat, buckwheat, and potatoes; later they helped Sheffield maintain sheep, pigs, chickens, and cattle.

In many entries throughout his diaries, we see how involved Sheffield was in his production process. When a farmer’s future would depend on the quality of his crops, it was important to be an active member of the business. Therefore, Sheffield doctored his sheep in order to ensure they would be healthy and would prune his fruit trees to ensure they would “blow out” nicely. Sheffield delivered his own products on most occasions. He notes taking 16 dozen eggs to the valley and having more eggs to prepare for hatching. In a few short weeks, he again writes about hatching more eggs to add to his flock (5 May 1867). He often mentions traveling to Wayland to sell bushels of potatoes, apples, or wheat. While Sheffield was a big part of his farming business, he depended upon numerous men from the community to help with the workload. On May 8, 1866, he writes “I plowed my garden and set out some pear trees and lady apple in my garden. Mr. Westfall helped.” Later, Sheffield writes about giving Mr. Westfall a substantial amount of hay. Not only was Mr. Westfall a helping hand as he plowed the fields and gathered manure for crops, Mr. Westfall also contributed to Sheffield’s farm by pasturing his cows on Sheffield’s land.

The diagram above, for a "Guideway Steam Culture," shows that industrialization wasn't just an urban phenomenon--it changed American agriculture, too. The illustration's production-line logic also shows that it changed social relations. Sheffield's workers, by contrast, were not simply paid (factory) employees; their relationship to him was more complicated. A couple of years later, when Sheffield wanted to construct a new building, George.W. Capron “invited hands to help raise” a new horse barn (Jul. 24 1868) and Sheffield reciprocates by giving Capron several bushels of potatoes. Through his farm, Sheffield was able to establish a food network that allowed people to borrow if they could not purchase an item and establish a community that would work with one another for the common good.