XIV. CULTIVATED CROPS - CROPS OF LIMITED CULTIVATION
Under this head we shall notice a variety of crops which however valuable in themselves and important to the farmers of particular localities, are, from one cause or the other, not adopted for general cultivation.
Flax is probably the most important of these crops. Indeed, from the rapid growth of our linen trade, the growing demand for linseed and its products, and the fitness of the soil and climate for the successful growth of flax, it is not without cause that its more extended cultivation has been so strenuously urged upon our farmers, and that influential societies have been organized for the express purpose of promoting this object. Viewed merely as an agricultural crop, the cultivation of flax is exceedingly simple, and could be practiced as readily and extensively as that of the cereal crops. The difficulty is, that before it can be disposed of to any advantage, it must undergo a process of partial manufacture; thus there is required not only an abundant supply of cheap labour, but such an amount of skill and personal superintendence on the part of the farmer as is incompatible with due attention to corn and cattle husbandry. If a ready and remunerative market were available for the fibre in its simple form of flax straw, this, in combination with the value of the seed for cattle feeding, would at once hold out sufficient motive to our farmers to grow it statedly and to any required extent. Until this is the case, its culture cannot extend in the corn-growing districts of Great Britain. In Ireland and parts of thee Highlands of Scotland, where there is a redundant population much in want of such employment as the flax crop furnishes, and where the climate is suited for its growth, it is highly desirable that its culture should extend, and probable that it will do so. Flax prospers most when grown upon land of firm texture resting upon a moist subsoil. It does well to succeed oats or potatoes , as it requires the soil to be in fresh condition without being too rich. Lands newly broken up from pasture suit it well, as these are generally freer from weeds than those that have been long under tillage. It is usually inexpedient to apply manure directly to the flax crop, as the tendency of this is to produce over-luxuriance, and thereby to mar the quality of the fibre, on which its value chiefly depends. For the same reason it must be thickly seeded, the effect of this being to produce tall slender stems, free from branches. The land having been ploughed in autumn, is prepared for sowing by working it with the grubber, harrow, and roller, until a fine tilth is obtained. On the smooth surface the seed is sown broadcast by hand or machine, at the rate of 3 bushels per acre, and covered in the same manner as clover seeds. It is advisable immediately to hand-rake it with common hay-rakes, and thus to remove all stones and clods, and to secure a uniform close cover of plants. When these are about 3 inches long the crop must be carefully hand-weeded. This is a tedious and expensive process, and hence the importance of sowing the crop on land as free as possible from weeds of all kinds. To obtain flax of the very finest quality the crop must be pulled as soon as the flowers fall, but in the improved modes of steeping, whether by Schencks or Watts patent, the value of the fibre is not diminished by allowing the seeds to mature. It must not, however, be allowed to become dead ripe, but should be pulled whenever the seeds appear, on opening the capsule, to be slightly brown-coloured. The pulling requires to be managed with much care. It is performed by men or women, who seize a small quantity with both hands and pull it by a slight jerking effort. The important point to be attended to is to keep the butts even as successive quantities are seized and twitched from the ground. When a convenient handful has been pulled it is laid on the ground, and the next parallel to it at a foot or so apart. The next handfuls are laid across these, and so on until a small pile is made, after which another is begun. After lying in this position for a few, the seed-vessels or bolls are separated from the flax by lifting each handful separately and pulling the top through a ripple or iron comb fixed upon a piece of plank. As many of these handfuls as will make a small sheaf are then laid very evenly together, and bound near both ends with bands formed of a few stems of flax. These sheaves are set up in stooks, and when dry enough to keep without heating are stacked and thatched until an opportunity occurs of disposing of the flax straw. Sometimes the flax is bound into sheaves and stoked as it is pulled, and treated exactly like a gain crop. In this case the seed is separated from the straw by passing the head of each sheaf between iron rollers. The only objection to this plan is that the bolls of separate sheaves get so entangled in each other as to render it exceedingly difficult to handle them in carrying the crop, and in building and taking down the stacks, without disarranging the sheaves and wasting much straw and seed.
It would be tedious to enter here into a minute detail of the ordinary method of separating the flax fibre from the woody part of the stem. Suffice it to say that in the ordinary practice the sheaves or beets of flax straw are immersed in a pit or pool filled with clear soft water. The sheaves are kept under water by laying boards upon them loaded with stones to keep them down. Here the flax undergoes a process of fermentation by which the parts are separated. About nine or ten days are usually required for this purpose, but this is much influenced by the temperature. A good deal of skill and close watching is required to know exactly when it has been watered enough. The flax is now taken from the pit and evenly spread upon a smooth, clean recently-mown meadow, where it lies for about ten days more, receiving several turnings the while. When the retting, as this is called, is perfectly dry, and again tied into sheaves, in which state it is stored under cover until the breaking and scotching can be overtaken.
All this necessarily requires much skilful watching and nice manipulation, _more, as we have already said, than is compatible with the other avocations of an extensive farmer. There are, however, improved modes of accomplishing this preliminary manufacture of flax which, wherever established, pave the way for the growth of flax as an ordinary field crop. For these see article FLAX.
The extent of flax cultivation in Ireland is considerable, but the acreage has been gradually diminishing during late years. In 1864 it reached the maximum, 301,693 acres; next year it fell to 251,433. Since 1869 it has steadily declined, there being 229,252 acres in flax crop that year, and only 122,003 in 1872.
Hemp, although at one time very generally grown in Great Britain, is now so rarely met with that it is unnecessary to enter into details of its cultivation.
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