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A method which is found to be immediately profitable is stated on the forty-sixth page of the Agriculture of Massachusetts for 1853. It requires, first, one or more main open drains, if the swamp is large and very wet, to receive and carry off the water at once. A thin coating of stable manure is then spread upon the surface of the grass in spring, and on this potatoes are dropped. Small ditches are then made, five or six feet apart, the muck being thrown out upon the potatoes, to cover them. This leaves the whole in long beds, some five or six feet wide, on which the potatoes grow luxuriantly, no matter how tough the sod with which they are covered. In the autumn, when the potatoes are dug, the vines are thrown into the small trenches, the whole surface is again levelled off, and grass seed is sown. Some of the largest yields of grass ever known have been obtained in this way. The drought never troubles such land; while, on the other hand, no injury can happen in a wet season if the number of drains is sufficient in the beginning. A thin coating of gravel, hauled upon the grass in the fall or winter after it is sown, will be of great service. On this subject, I must refer the reader to the section on reclaimed land in the Report of last year.
Such lands can ordinarily be bought very low; and if they can be reclaimed at a trifling expense in the manner described, or in any other way, they will not fail to pay a very large profit, and that, too, year after year. They require less manure than the light uplands, and retain it longer. In fact, such swamps are generally natural muck beds, being composed of the vegetable growth of many ages, and are thus made up of the richest mould, often extending to the depth of many feet. This is the first and one of the most important practicable methods of preventing suffering from droughts, and one which is within the easy reach of nearly every farmer in Massachusetts.
The next mode is by irrigation. This is so dependent upon circumstances, however, that it is not practicable for all; yet many lands in this State are so situated as to make it not only judicious, but truly economical. It has never been attempted to any extent by the farmers of Massachusetts; but the few instances which have come under my observation have been successful and remunerative.
Irrigation has been practised by successful cultivators from the highest antiquity. Long before Europe was civilized, the waters of the Tigris and the Euphrates were used in this manner for agricultural purposes; and in Mesopotamia, between these two rivers, there were more than 250,000 acres of irri. gated lands, not to mention similar works on the grandest scale in China, India, the Assyrian empire, Nineveh, Babylon, Egypt, Palestine, and many other countries of great antiquity. Modern nations have also profited largely by irrigation, particularly Lombardy, Tuscany, the south of France and Spain.
I am not prepared to say whether, under similar circumstances of soil and value of lands, equally good results might be anticipated here, where the climate is so different, and the value of lands, and of labor in particular, is so much greater. But every one is familiar with the fact that land is fertilized by extraordinary supplies of water. This is too palpable around the margins of every running stream to be denied; and while we are subject every summer to be visited by severe droughts, no practicable means of guarding against them should be neglected or overlooked.
The modes of irrigating are as different as the kinds of water used and the principles on which it acts. To attempt to state these modes, and the comparative advantages of each, would require a distinct treatise upon this subject. It is suffi. cient to enumerate the most common of them. Superficial irri. gation was undoubtedly suggested by observing the wonderful effects which arise from the occasional overflow of rivers. The most remarkable example of this natural irrigation of arable lands is to be seen in the annual overflowing of the Nile; and the main principles which regulate this kind of irrigation are to be found in similar examples, where the overflowing is occasional, and the water, instead of being left to stagnate upon the surface, is moving gently over it, and depositing the alluvial matter held in suspension. The most wonderful cases of fertility on record are illustrations of the benefit of these occasional irrigations. The richness of the valley of the Mississippi and of the Connecticut is to be ascribed to this source; and these overflowings are imitated in all attempts to irrigate the surface by conducting water over it by means of a system of shallow open drains, which lead the water from its natural channel, and keep a constant flow, without allowing it to accumulate in any part.
Another kind of irrigation consists in conducting the water into, instead of upon, the land by means of open drains, into which the water can be led and raised sufficiently to saturate the whole area surrounded by the drain. If the field is level, it is sufficient to fill the drain or ditch, and keep it filled till the soil is moistened; but if the land is sloping, the lower end of the ditch is stopped till the land is saturated, and then let off. It is ordinarily much less expensive than surface irrigation, and has been practised with great success in Lombardy, as well as in England and Scotland. This kind of irrigation is more frequently used for cultivated annual crops than for grasses.
The irrigation of grass Jands is found to be very beneficial in moist climates, and in such it greatly promotes the luxuri. ance of the growth. But climate undoubtedly greatly modifies the effects produced. It is the opinion of some that the grass which has been produced by irrigation is of an inferior quality. This opinion is expressed by several farmers, in answer to the sixth question of the circular, as to the results of experiments in irrigation. This opinion is also expressed by Columella, a celebrated Roman writer on agriculture. “ Land," says he, " that is naturally rich, and is in good heart, does not need to have water set over it; and it is better hay which nature of its own accord produces in a juicy soil, than what water draws from a soil that is overflowed. This, however, is a necessary practice, when the poverty of the soil requires it; and a meadow may be formed either upon a stiff or light soil, though poor when water is set over it. Neither a low field with hol. lows, nor a field broken with steep rising ground, is proper; the first, because it retains too long the water collected in the hollows; the last, because it makes the water run too quickly over it. A field, however, that has a moderate descent may be irrigated if it be so situated as to admit of it; but the best situation is where the surface is smooth, and the descent so gentle as to prevent either showers or the rivers that overflow it remaining too long, and, on the other hand, to allow the
water that runs over it quietly to glide off.” But though not so nutritive as grass growing in the natural moisture, it is probably not so much less nutritive as many would suppose.
Stiff soils are generally sufficiently moist without irrigating, and light soils are more suited to this treatment. Sandy and gravelly soils, with a porous subsoil, are greatly benefited by it.
River water is most frequently used for these purposes, though spring water may be used to great advantage; and muddy streams, containing a large amount of animal or vegetable matter, are always eminently suitable for the purposes of irrigation.
But the value of irrigation does not depend solely upon the supplies of moisture which it furnishes. “The mechanical action of the irrigatory current of water, in exercising the plants, strengthening their organism, keeping their stems and root crowns clear of obstruction, promoting the equable circulåtion of water and oxygen around them, and causing an equable distribution of the soluble materials of their food, probably plays a considerable part in irrigatory fertilization. The differences of effect, from the mere circumstance of fluence or stagnation in the water, are prodigious; for while flowing water coaxes up the finest indigenous grasses of the climate, and renders them sweet and wholesome, and nutritious and luxuriant, stagnant water starves, deteriorates, or kills all the good grasses."
The process of surface irrigation is not so simple as many would suppose. It requires great skill and practice, and the farmer who attempts it without sufficient consideration is very apt to fail. In cases where it is thought to be practicable, it should be tried at first only as an experiment, and not on so large a scale as to involve great expense, unless there is a rcasonable prospect of permanent advantage. With respect to its advantages, Sir John Sinclair says, “First, with the exception of warping, it is by far the easiest, cheapest, and most certain mode of improving poor land in particular, if it is of a dry and gravelly nature; second, land, when once improved by irrigation, is put into a state of perpetual fertility, without any occasion for manure, or trouble of weeding, or any other material expense; third, it becomes so productive as to yield the largest bulk of hay, besides abundance of the very best support for ewes and lambs in the spring, and for cows and other cattle in the autumn of every year; fourth, in favorable situations, it produces very early grass in the spring, when it is doubly valuable; and fifth, not only is the land thus rendered fertile, without any occasion for manure, but it produces food for animals, which is converted into manure, to be used on other lands—thus augmenting, in a compound proportion, that great source of fertility.”
The use of the hydraulic ram in raising water for irrigation will hereafter be better understood and appreciated. By means of this simple machine sufficient water may be raised to fertilize many acres, which are now comparatively worthless through a considerable portion of every dry summer.
I shall take occasion, farther on, to speak of the difference between the climate of England and our own; and the reader will be able to judge for himself how far the difference in circumstances would be likely to modify the advantages derived from irrigation in other countries. It may be stated, however, that the south of France and Spain are subject to severe droughts like our own, and that irrigation is there resorted to as a remedy against them with great success, and with the most satisfactory results.
I have dwelt at some length upon this subject, because so little attention has been paid to it that its advantages are :: either not understood or not acknowledged. Further experiments are needed to settle the question as to how far irrigation may be practised here with profit. In point of natural facilities for obtaining suitable water, many parts of Massachusetts are eminently fortunate; and the time will undoubtedly come when the waters of our streams will be regarded as of inestimable value for agricultural purposes.
Another mode of avoiding the bad effects of our droughts is by decp ploughing and frequent stirring of the soil in dry weather. This will probably be found the most efficient and practicable mode to be pursued in upland cultivation. Deep ploughing and frequent stirring of the soil, is the answer made, in nine cases out of ten, to the question as to what is the best