Resistance is sweet: A historical Grow Food Northampton plot is raising crops — sugar beets and flax seedlings — produced by Florence abolitionists in the 1840s

  • Bridget MacNeill, a Smith College Botanic Garden intern, during a sugar beet harvest at the Lydia Maria Child Historical plot in the Grow Food community garden on Meadow Street in Northampton. This year’s crop will be harvested in the fall. CONTRIBUTED

  • Grow Food Northampton and the David Ruggles Center have collaborated on a Lydia Maria Child historical plot. CONTRIBUTED

  • Sugar beets and flax seedlings are grown at the Lydia Maria Child Historical plot in the Grow Food community garden on Meadow Street. The crops were experimentally produced by Florence abolitionists in the 1840s. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • Writer and activist Lydia Maria Child and her husband, David, moved from Boston and raised sugar beets here before 1840 in resistance to the slavery-dependent sugar cane industry. VIA WIKIMEDIA

For the Gazette
Published: 6/16/2022 6:33:14 PM
Modified: 6/16/2022 6:30:59 PM

A friend has a bumper sticker that reads MONEY IS NOT VOTING. What exactly does that mean? I’ve never asked her, and I’m not sure if I actually agree with that statement.

True, money is not voting, but in many ways, money — and the ways we support or undermine causes and behaviors with our consumer choices — is voting-adjacent. In an era of fraught elections, boycotts may not necessarily be more influential than voting, but they have the strength of undiluted conscience behind them — personal protests that, on a large enough scale, have the potential to change the world.

With Juneteenth on the horizon, it’s worth noting that consumer boycotts, which have been deployed against companies from Chick-Fil-A to Amazon, have their roots in abolitionist history. The Quaker-led Free Produce Movement in America began in the decades before the Civil War, when its adherents sought to end complicity with slavery by abstaining from the purchase of anything produced by slave labor: cotton, cane sugar and tobacco, to name just a few.

Cane sugar has a particularly cruel history, as its plantations were both farms and factories, requiring enslaved people to perform the backbreaking labor of planting and harvesting the heavy cane as well as the work of processing it by extracting and boiling the cane juice, with enslaved children toiling in mills under the constant threat of boiling kettles and open furnaces.

The production of cane sugar was in fact so labor intensive and dangerous that until the establishment of mass slavery, refined sugar was produced only in small amounts, as an exotic luxury product. But slavery made sugar widely available, and what had once been a luxury became a household necessity, cementing the cycle of suffering and demand.

David andLydia Maria Child

Those attuned to local history know that the Northampton Association for Education and Industry, founded in Florence in 1842, was an abolitionist community, a cooperative-type utopian group devoted to a “purer form of society” not dependent upon the suffering of others for its needs. But even before the founding of the association, Florence was host to David Child and Lydia Maria Child, an abolitionist couple who had moved to the Pioneer Valley from Boston, in part to engage in a form of agriculture as protest.

The couple brought sugar beet cultivation to the area in the hope of developing a source of sugar that would not require slave labor to produce in quantity.

Child was no dilettante; he’d gone to Holland, Germany and France to study everything about sugar beets, from cultivation to storage and processing, and wrote a comprehensive book called “The Culture of the Beet” (currently housed at Historic Northampton). He established the first U.S. sugar beet processing factory on Masonic Street, and won an award for producing the first beet sugar in America in 1839.

Unfortunately, due to boggy growing conditions, the venture was not a success, and the sugar beet operation ceased after 1840. But the spirit of conscientious protest was as important as the sugar beets themselves and, as much or even more so than her husband, Maria Child embodied that spirit.

Part of the reason the Childs settled in Florence in the first place was because Maria, renowned author of a best-selling book on housekeeping titled “The Frugal Housewife” (written for middle- and lower-class audiences at a time when most such books were written for the upper classes) had been pilloried by her Boston friends for writing “An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called African,” a comprehensive critique of slavery.

For her activism and outspokenness in the anti-slavery movement, Maria lost sales of “The Frugal Housewife” and was forced to close the children’s magazine she edited.

None of that swayed her; her letters detail frank confrontations with Northampton aristocrats regarding the issue of slavery (Northampton was not particularly radical for its time, and it was also the summer home to a number of slaveholders from the South), and eventually she went on to edit The National Antislavery Standard in New York. Her ability to stand firm in her extremely unpopular beliefs despite social ostracization and financial consequences marks her as a woman of real distinction.

As a way of honoring both her spirit and the history of agriculture as resistance, Grow Food Northampton and the David Ruggles Center have collaborated on the establishment of a Lydia Maria Child Historical plot in the Grow Food community garden on Meadow Street. The plot grows crops that were experimentally produced by Florence abolitionists in the 1840s to replace products that relied on slave labor, and currently holds sugar beet and flax seedlings.

Participants in a joint Grow Food-Ruggles Center workshop prepared and planted the beds earlier in the spring, and when harvest time rolls around in the fall, other collaborative workshops are planned to show folks how sugar is extracted from the beets and thread formed from the flax.

These workshops, along with visiting the plot and watching the seedlings (and weeds!) grow, offer visceral reminders that the things we take for granted — sugar and cotton among them — have both a troubled history and a physical presence in the world that requires land, water, and especially labor.

The sugar beet vision may not have been realized in the way the Childs hoped it would be, but their efforts and lives remind us that resistance to oppression and injustice takes all different forms: education, collaboration, votes, farms. Sometimes resistance is as radical as planting a beet.

 Francie Lin is Grow Food Northampton’s writer-in-residence. She can be reached at francie@growfoodnorthampton.org.


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