PEI’s soil is very acidic; too acidic for many common crops. In order to neutralize the soil’s pH, early pioneers found that mussel mud (clay from the shore with a high concentration of mussel and oyster shells) had an alkaline effect on the soil and made it viable for planting.
Later, as technology and trade improved, farmers made the transition from the laborious process of harvesting mussel mud to purchasing lime to be spread by tractor on the fields for the same effect.
In Ellen’s Diary entry from June 13th, 1957, she mentions spreading lime by tractor. Interestingly enough, she also mentions seeding with a horse-drawn seeder, illustrating how the mid-20th century was a true transition period in agricultural technology.
“What a busy field it was there by the roadside at that other farm this morning! The younger farmer was spreading lime with tractor and spreader, Jamie following was harrowing it in, in nice sweeps of the machine. Rob was sowing with the horse-drawn seeder, James chore to keep him supplied with the ‘straight oats’ and the ‘grass seed, which went today to ‘seed it down.’’
‘Many hands,’ James smiled, obviously well-pleased with the progress of the cropping.”
Below is another informative excerpt from the Newsy Farm Notes column, found in The Guardian PEI Newspaper. Flax and “all that the inventor claims”: In 1929, Agricola turned his regular farm column to flax, making him the latest in a chorus of boosters promoting flax to Canadian farmers. The most familiar refrain here was his suggestion that the main barrier to a Canadian flax industry was technical. “A new machine for processing hemp and flax is now being tested in Ontario, and should it prove all that the inventor claims,” he promised, a flax linen industry would surely boom.
“I note in a periodical that the revenue from flax production in Canada has increased by 206% in the last five years, and this led me to inquire into the industry. Flax is grown successfully in other parts of Canada, but I have not heard of its being grown commercially here. The chief drawback of the industry is the amount of hand-labour required in preparing the fibre, and that means money nowadays. The flax is spread in the field and “retted”- which means rotted- till the fibres separate easily. Then begins the tedious process of taking the fibre from the body of the plant. It is run through a “breaking machine” which gently breaks up the woody part, and makes it ready for the “scutchers” who hold it to blunt revolving knives which thresh out the wood and leave the fibre in the scutcher’s hands. The retting process is often speeded up by soaking the stems in a pool keeping them submerged by weights.
Though flax is one of the oldest of cloth materials, no better method than the laborious hand preparation has been devised, if quality of fibre is required. All machines for scutching up to the present, have proved unsatisfactory, producing too much tow (broken stems, etc.) in proportion to the fibre. The “hackling” or combing of the machined fibre, previous to spinning, has not stood the test.
There has of course been a long, patient and expensive effort to produce machinery without these defects, but without success. A new machine for processing hemp and flax is now being tested in Ontario, and should it prove all that the inventor claims, an impetus will be given to an industry which means much to Canada. Owing to this difficulty, flax has been grown principally for seed, and that it is productive is shown by the fact that in 1925 1,126,100 acres produced 9,297,100 bushels of flax seed valued at $18,462,500; and in 1926 when 733,065 acres were sown, the revenue was $9,613,000.”
Read Flax Americana by Josh MacFadyen to read why flax actually boomed in western Canada. Hint: it was more about paint than linen!
Sources: Agricola. “Newsy Farm Notes.” The Charlottetown Guardian. July 26 1929. Accessed July 4 2019.