As unpleasant a job as it might have been, there was no job more important to the farmer than fertilizing his fields. Luckily, the livestock on a mixed farm were always glad to supply him with plenty of raw material. Robins aside, there was no surer sign of spring on the Island than the aromatic scent of manure in the air. Because of its nutrient-rich contents and its availability on the farm, manure was the most widely used form of fertilizer.
However, the leavings of the sea were also used to ready local fields for planting. Seaweed or kelp was gathered by farmers at the shore and spread over the soil to promote composting. Whenever possible, herring would be placed on potato fields, as the fish were said to bring about a scab-free crop. While lobster shells were used on some fields, due to the lime deposits they contained, they were also high in potash and could prove especially detrimental to potato cultivation. Also, when grain was sown in fields where lobster shells had been used, it would fall over.
The most important sea product used on the land was known as 'mussel mud,' a residue dragged up from the underwater beds where these blue molluscs grow and live. Made up of a rich decomposing mixture of oyster shells, mussels, and organic elements, mussel mud was practically the only source of lime at the farmer's disposal and greatly added to the richness of his soil. During the winter months, farmers would come from many miles around to harvest mud from the rivers and streams on the Island's North Shore.
Island mussel mud digging began in the community of Clinton, located five miles northeast of Kensington, in the early 1890s. At first, mussel mud harvesting took place in the spring and was done almost completely manually, by shoveling the mud directly into carts and then hauling it off to the fields by horse. But farmers soon discovered the harvest went far better in the winter months, when the ice actually allowed them to get directly over the richest mussel beds. First, they would cut a huge cake of ice from the river and then dig the mud with large forks, whose handles alone sometimes measured up to thirty feet long. These forks were attached by cable to a horse-driven capstan-- a spool-shaped cylinder-- that pulled the mud to the surface of the ice, where it was then placed in sleighs and dragged back to the farm. The digging and spreading of mussel mud was a time-consuming and difficult undertaking, and it was eventually abandoned when limestone became more accessible.
Age-old techniques, such as manure and mussel mud, were quickly replaced by chemical fertilizers in the second half of the twentieth century. After World War II, the government and chemical companies promoted new discoveries in farm chemicals and promised better alternatives to traditional fertilization. But more recently, with mounting concern over the long-term effects of these chemicals on us and the land, organic farming has been on the rebound. And mussel mud is now available again, though now sold in five pound bags instead by the sleighful.