Old South: Planting by the moon

By Elton Camp

Fields produced far less well in the Old South than they do today. Farmers strived to do what they could to increase their productivity. Some of the methods used were of questionable value, but gave them a feeling of doing what they could to draw a better living from the soil.

The phases of the moon were considered in planting of crops. Detailed information and instructions were available from the Farmer’s Almanac. Every rural family regularly consulted its copy.

“Paw, do you really believe it helps to plant by the moon?” Leamon asked. Based on what he was learning in school, he no longer gave credence to the idea, but felt it unwise to directly attack widespread views that had been held for generations.

“I ain’t shore that hit matters. But they’s no harm done ‘n goin’ by hit.” Milas’ reservations were shared by some of his neighbors, but they rarely spoke of it. Most of their associates were convinced that it was a necessity for successful farming.

Potatoes were set only on the dark of the moon. Seed were planted within two days before a full moon. Nobody planted on the day of the full moon or the day of the new moon. Stories circulated about calamities that befell farmers who had carelessly or wantonly violated the planting rules.

“Roscoe planted his cotton unner th’ wrong sign three years ago ’n’ his crop failed almost total,” a believing neighbor warned. “I tried t’ tell him, but he wouldn’t listen.”

He’d forgotten that the man had turned off sick that year, and had been unable to give the usual attention to cultivation.

If one thing was done and a particular result followed, that was all the proof needed that the first event caused the second. No other possibility was considered. The Latin expression, “Post hoc, ergo propter hoc” had as little meaning for them as the scientific fallacy it describes has for many in the present. “After this, therefore because of this” made perfect sense to Milas and his contemporaries. Despite his misgivings, he planted by the moon.

Farmers had a few other sources of information on farming and life in general. One that was well liked was the broadsheet titled Grit. Started in 1882, it was designed with a rural audience in mind. Boys sold it farm-to-farm to make a little extra money.

“Mr. Milas, want t’ buy a Grit?” Robert asked. “Hit’s got stuff on farmin’, gardenin’, projects y’u kin do, funny stuff, ’n’ religious thangs. I thank y’u might reely like hit.”

“Boy, I’ve bought hit fer years. Y’u don’t have t’ tell me nothin’ ’bout whut hit has.”  He handed the smiling boy the few pennies.

Robert would return in a couple of weeks with a new issue. Grit was well designed to serve people isolated from cities. The young salesman provided welcome reading material while he gained valuable lessons in honesty, integrity and the handling of money. Such newsboys continued to sell Grit into the 1950s. At the time, few would’ve imagined it would continue to be published in the 21st Century.

Another popular magazine was The Progressive Farmer. It started in North Carolina in 1886. Targeted to the southeast, it provided the newest information on cultivating crops and raising livestock. Open to considering new ideas, Milas regularly read it. It helped him in his own farming and in supervising his sharecroppers. It’d started out as a broadsheet, but changed to a tabloid. The periodical came in the mail for those who subscribed. The publication came to have a central office in Birmingham. The organization, decades later, gave birth to Southern Living Magazine.

Progress in agricultural production, nevertheless, came slowly and was associated with the decline of small family farms and the rise of large-scale operations. Whether this is a desirable change continues to be debated.