Pharsalia: An Environmental Biography of a Southern Plantation, 1780-1880

By Lynn A. Nelson | Go to book overview

three
Pharsalia’s Ecological Crisis, 1828–1848

During the 1830s and 1840s, the problems practical planters encountered when building the double-cycle in the south Atlantic nearly overwhelmed Pharsalia plantation. William Massie had hoped that the agricultural system pushed by the leading conservationists of the antebellum South would make his plantation ecologically, and therefore financially, independent. But the shortcomings of high farming’s focus on managing soil fertility became clear as Massie and his slaves struggled with the land at the foot of the Blue Ridge. Importing techniques and crops into Virginia’s physical environment and agricultural tradition proved difficult. Massie’s attempt to replace tobacco with hemp ran aground on this rock—his inability to cultivate and market hemp successfully left him once again grudgingly dependent on tobacco. Worse, the simplified ecology of the double-cycle outlined on paper did not take into account the complexity of real-world environments. Pharsalia’s fields were besieged by a variety of pests, weeds, and plant pathogens that competed all too successfully for the plantation’s share of biotic productivity. Faced with declining yields, Massie clung tenaciously to the southern reformer’s vision of ecological and personal independence, but Pharsalia was no closer to becoming the plantation he hoped in the late 1840s than it had been in 1815.


Markets and Ecology at Pharsalia

Like many other plantations, Pharsalia struggled in the antebellum agricultural marketplace. Tobacco prices, already low in the years after the

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