First Things

Creating Opportunities

| March 2007

Chop your own wood and it will warm you twice.

- American proverb

The converse of that proverb (Chop your own ice and it will cool you twice) is also true but a good deal less charming. In an article beginning on page 10 of this issue of Farm Collector, columnist Sam Moore revisits the ice harvesting business that thrived in the northeast part of this country for more than 50 years. If you were the ice tycoon, it looks like ice harvesting was a pretty nice little sideline. But for the guys working on the ice, it looks like one long, cold day at the office in an era before waterproof, insulated boots had been invented.

Historically, the roots of farm-based innovations are often found in economic necessity. Farmers who can't afford new technology have long been resourceful in developing ways to enhance old technology. In the mid-1800s, though, ice harvesting was not so much an alternative as it was a solution. It wasn't that farmers couldn't afford refrigeration: Refrigeration didn't exist yet!

By looking at frozen rivers and seeing not only a solution but also a commodity, farmers and businessmen capitalized on a ready opportunity. Ultimately they were consuming yet another of our natural resources - ice harvesting is not so different from cutting trees or fishing or mining coal - but presumably with fewer long-term environmental impacts. In any case, the crop was free for the taking, and farmhands under-utilized in winter months were undoubtedly glad for the work.

As a sort of windfall crop, ice fit neatly into common farm practices of the day. The way in which ice fields were marked for plowing is reminiscent of check planting techniques of the era. Horses were put to work pulling markers and plows. Barn-like structures were built to store the crop. In the end, the ice harvest was just another way in which early farmers demonstrated self-sufficiency.