John Johnston’s Tile Drainage and its Profound Effects on Agriculture
John Johnston was an immigrant from Scotland who brought the tile drainage technique to the United States in 1821. Once he arrived he immediately traveled to and settled in upstate New York after he bought a cheap plot of land. The reason for its low price was because it was believed to be unprofitable soil. But Johnston started to raise animals and slowly integrated his tile drainage idea throughout his farm. Tile drainage is a system where farmers add drain tiles in their soil, which allows crops to grow stronger roots, effectively allowing them to absorb more nutrients. By 1838, Johnston was disliked by many of his neighbors because he was producing nearly six times the bushels of wheat per acre than they were. But Johnston was not secretive about his methods and told people it was due to this tile drainage system. He emphasized the fact that the land in the Finger Lake region was flooded and in using tiles a farmer could drain excess water, thus increasing crop yield. People of the area did not believe him and just called his success luck.
Tile Drainage in American farming did not become a popular tool until 1848, when Robert Swan finally listened to John Johnston. Robert Swan was a wealthy man who made his money in the city before moving to upstate New York. He was John Johnston’s neighbor and the first man to be willing to give Johnston a chance. In his diary, Robert Swan slowly unfolds his opinions of Johnston’s tile drainage system, a very influential farming tool, which individually revolutionized agriculture in upstate New York. On August 10th 1848, Robert Swan wrote in his Memorandum. that Mr. John Johnston, “thinks tiles are the best method laid 2.5 feet deep in the ground; cost of tiles 28 cents, ditching 15 cents cost altogether 40 cents for rod.” Displayed here, is a monumental moment in American agricultural production because immediately following this confrontation, Swan refitted his entire farm with Johnston’s tile drainage system.
Johnston and Swan farmed their land during a transitional time in American farming. With the help of some influential neighbors and the president of the New York State Agricultural Society, many upstate farmers soon adopted Johnston’s tile system. Among these influential neighbors were Ben F. Whartenby, the manufacturer, and John Delafield, president of the New York State Agricultural Society. Delafield’s advocacy of the drainage system, especially in his lectures and speeches, helped integrate tile drainage into farming. These four men remodeled upstate New York farming during the Market Revolution, helping transition self-sufficient family farming into commercially profit based businesses to.