Published December 1975 — Download PDF of the original newspaper column
Byrd's-Eye View By U.S. Senator Robert C. Byrd America Had Famine Before Feast Although the United States is now the greatest agricultural power in the history of the world, the early years of farming in America were filled with failures and disappointments. The earliest settlers experienced a succession of crop failures, and were unable to cultivate English grains in the American soil. In fact, the situation was so tragic that, in the winter of 1609-1610, two-thirds of all the settlers in Jamestown, Virginia, starved to death. It was not until farmers began experimenting with Indian corn, and with the methods the Indians used to cultivate their crops, that survival in the New World was assured. The experiments c o n t i n u e d, and, through an often painful trial and error method, the agricultural base of America began taking shape. Crops such as corn and bean s flourished, and, eventually, even the English grains took root. Along with the technical experiments, the settlers also tried a number of social experiments-and the results helped form the basis of America's respect for individual effort, and its commitment to the free enterprise system. Throughout Virginia, and in Plymouth, Massachusetts, farm communes were organized. The settlers had to work together, placing everything they produced in a common warehouse. Each farmer received a subsistence from the warehouse, and the profits went to the business companies which had financed the colonies. The commune system was a dismal failure in America. It penalized the hard worker, and benefited the shirkers. Thus, Virginia abandoned it in 1611, replacing it with the "headright" system which gave each new settler 50 acres of unclaimed land. Massachusetts gave up on the commune idea in 1623, and substituted a "township" system. Groups, primarily religious congregations, were given land to develop as they saw fit. It is no coincidence that there was a marked increase in agricultural production once the settlers moved away from communal farming - just as it is no coincidence that the early settlers survived the initial crop failures. The first settlers were resilient men and women. They had come to the New World seeking freedom, and a way of life in which they would control their destinies- and they were determined to succeed. The strength of character that they possessed was much in evidence in the Americans of more than a century later-in 1776.