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Early Farming Methods
Though they lived in a rural part of Sicily The four Busa brothers really did not have experience in farming as a business. My father said that when they started he did not even know how to seed beans. His plan was to come to America , work for a few years and make enough money to go back home and buy a cow. Things change. When they bought the farm in 1919, the land had to be cleared and prepared for farming. They had little machinery so the land clearing and plowing was done by hand and with horses. They had to cut down pear trees in the fields and move many rocks and boulders .None of the boys had much education but they were all clever and hard working. They picked up the art rather quickly and soon added their own techniques and ideas to cope with the fickle weather and climate of New England.
In order to get a jump on the spring, to get their crops to market early for the best prices, they used transplants grown in "hot beds" and sash houses. To keep the young plants from freezing , they seeded and transplanted in six foot wide beds covered with heavy 3X6 foot glass frames they called sashes. It was called a hot bed because they used several inches of horse manure under a few inches of topsoil to help generate heat during the cold spring nights. On top of the sashes they laid two-inch thick mats made of woven straw that were taken off each day and rolled back at night. A sash house was made by bolting and nailing sashes together to make a small greenhouse they could work in. Each brother had hundreds of sashes and they spent the winters repairing and painting them as well as weaving the mats. Thousands of seedlings of lettuce, celery , beets, chicory and greens were planted under the glass on 2X2 inch centers to be later pulled up and transplanted into the fields in April. They built greenhouses in the thirties but continued to use hot beds, for transplants and later for annuals and bedding plants, into the nineties.
They did not buy tractors until after World War II, so the plowing and harrowing was done with a horse, The planting and weeding and picking were all done by hand and required a lot of labor and organization. All of the children and wives worked as well as relatives and local kids during the summer.
The layout and soil conditions of the land dictated what could be planted where and when. It had high rocky parts and low moist areas. They started planting and seeding on the dryer area in April and then moved into the lower areas later in the spring. Celery grew best in the lower spots and tomatoes squash and cucumbers better in the dryer areas. They had to double and triple crop the land: when one crop was picked new plants or seedings had to be ready to go into that spot as soon as possible; this required a lot of planning and experience. For example, you couldn't follow cabbage with broccoli because of disease problems, or celery with celery because the second crop would not make it before the frost. Between rows of squash or tomatoes they would plant fast-growing crops like chicory and lettuce while those more tender plants were getting started under waxed-paper "hot-caps". They varied the types of vegetables they would grow so they would have something to pick and sell each week instead of waiting for one large field to mature. This helped minimize the effects of the inconsistent New England weather. A hot dry summer would be great for squash but not for lettuce or beets, but a late spring or early fall frost would not hurt them. Also they avoided disease and nutrition problems by this rotation and varied cropping.
The plowing was done with a single horse set-up until after World War Two . It was very hard work because the soil was generally rocky and hilly even though there were patches of deep topsoil. Horse , cow and chicken manure, much more plentiful than they are today, were the main source of fertilizer, spread and plowed in. Limestone was spread by hand to help activate the fertilizer and add the calcium necessary for celery and tomato crops . After plowing, the ground was smoothed and groomed with harrows and rakes and shallow trenches dug for the rows to plant tomatoes and celery or lines marked out on top of beds with string and a wheel marker to keep a uniform distance between the smaller plants of lettuce and beets. Seeding of lettuce and beets was done with a single row hand pushed seed drill and spaced fifteen inches apart.
After the ground was prepared and plants were in came the difficult part of tending to them. Weeding was constant and done by hand and with small tools like hand-hooks, hoes , shove-hoes and hand pushed wheel cultivators. A shove hoe or scuffle-hoe, hard to find today, was a twelve-inch-wide bracket attached to a long pole to cultivate the soil and bury small weeds as they first emerge, taking some strain off the back. The plants were side-dressed with nitrate fertilizers either thrown between rows and cultivated in or applied with a one-row fertilizer hopper . The fields were watered with Skinner pipes, also not in use and hard to find today. These were one-inch diameter pipes threaded together the length of the field. They had holes with aerators spread three feet apart in a single line the length of the pipe. The water would shoot up twenty feet and come down in a fine mist allowing for deeper penetration of the soil without compacting it and avoiding run-off. Since they only sprayed in one direction though , they had to be turned every hour or so to cover the whole field and had to be mounted on posts and disassembled and moved from crop to crop.
Getting crops to market was also a challenge. Since there were many more farms in the area in the twenties and thirties, and into the sixties, quality and timeliness was very important. The earlier in the season you got your produce to market the higher the price usually, as long as you also had the best offerings. Vegetables had to be the proper size and weight ,blemish free ,uniform , clean and packaged properly. Celery had to be cut clean above the roots, light green, free of black-heart and rust disease, sprayed and washed of all dirt, bunched in paper wrappers, packed in wooden crates and top-iced .Tomatoes had to be sorted and graded for size and quality, crack and spot free, with color breaking( between green and light red), packed in woven wooden baskets ,top layer facing up with stems indicating freshness, cellophaned and stacked on racks .Beets and radishes had to be the proper diameter ,hand tied in bunches sprayed clean of dirt and packed showing color and iced. Lettuce, squash and cucumbers also had to meet certain standards. The hard work in the spring and summer would pay off later in the market place.
In the twenties they brought their own produce to market which was in the Fanueil Hall area in Boston. They packed their produce on a horse-drawn wagon in the evening ,spent a few hours in a hotel ( and a few in Scolley Square) to be up at four a.m. to sell their goods and return home by mid-morning. Later on they would leave their produce at a brokerage house in the evening who would sell it for them and take a percentage. Market days were Monday to Friday so they delivered Sundays through Thursdays. They could catch up on the weeding and planting on Fridays and Saturdays. Sundays they worked half a day making a load for market in the morning and maybe tending the water pipes in the afternoon then driving the truck in at night.