The profession of the farmer was not so much a single job, but a combination of vocations. To keep his farm up and running, the farmer had to be ready to wear any number of different hats, so to speak. He was a botanist with his crops, a veterinarian with his livestock, and a businessman when negotiating the best price for his yield. He even had to play the role of weatherman, doing the hay while it was dry and taking in the potatoes while the soil was still damp. Farmers may not have received much formal education but-- by any standard-- they possessed a wealth of knowledge, picked up from past generations and from each other.
The sharing of ideas, equipment, and manpower was an essential part of traditional farm practice. When there were large tasks to be accomplished, neighbors always seemed to be ready with a helping hand. These collective efforts, especially important during cropping and harvesting seasons, were known as 'frolics.' Farmers would organize a group of men to help with the harvesting of hay, or to raise the frame and rafters of a new building. The reward for putting in a hard day's work would be a large meal, prepared by the women, followed by a night of fiddle music, dancing, and festivity.
One of the most important sources of information for the early farmer was the moon, which served him at different times as a makeshift calendar, weather report, or even good luck charm. The phases of the moon were used as a planting guide, partly on the basis of reasoned experience and partly out of superstition. Potatoes were planted in the dark phase of the moon in May, while cucumber and pumpkins were not to be put in the ground until the dark phase of the moon in June. These rules-of-thumb had a good reason behind them: the Island is prone to heavy frosts until the end of May, which could wipe out above ground crops.
But other moon-related superstitions had less immediately discernible reasons behind them. Pigs, for instance, were supposed to be slaughtered during a moonless night to prevent the meat from shriveling. When the moon was on the wane, it was said, splitting firewood was easier and the bark would peel right off the 'longers,' or fence posts. Potato sets-- the sectioned potatoes used as seed-- were to be cut before a full moon and dried in the sun. Traditions die hard, and many older Island farmers still swear by these beliefs.
Farmers also needed to keep a watchful eye trained on the health of their livestock. With veterinarians few and far between, they had to rely on their own diagnoses and apply traditional remedies, often passed down through several generations. Colic in horses was treated by 'drenching' the animal-- administering a purgative made from birch tree bark-- and then walking it until the medicine brought relief. Cows who had overfed on green grain or clover would have to be stabbed in the stomach, with aprecise incision that relieved the painful buildup of gas.
Until recently, the Island farm was a mainly self-sufficient operation, and there was little need or occasion to record its financial dealings. One local farmer remembered how his father kept a tally of farm production with notches on his barn door. When the barn caved in, all the records went along with it. But the lack of written records did not mean that the farm itself was ready to fall apart at any minute. The farmer carried his calculations around in his head, always knowing how much a field or an animal should produce. However, the rise of large, commercial farms has required that farmers develop a more formal managerial style, with cost and revenue tabulations and payroll accounts. To be successful, the modern farmer has to fulfil another role over and above the many that his predecessors perfomed: the role of a businessman.