CHAPTER X. AGRICULTURE, INDUSTRY, AND TRADE

The methods of agriculture were beyond question slovenly and crude. Catalogne, the engineer whom the authorities commissioned to make an agricultural census of the colony, ventured the opinion that, if the fields of France were cultivated as the farms of Canada were, three-quarters of the French people would starve. Rotation of crops was practically unknown, and fertilization of the land was rare, although the habitant frequently burned the stubble before putting the plough to his fields. From time to time a part of each farm was allowed to lie fallow, but such fallow fields were left unploughed and soon grew so rank with weeds that the soil really got no rest at all. All the ploughing was done in the spring, and it was not very well done at that, for the land was ploughed in ridges which left much waste between the furrows. Too often the seed became poor, as a result of the habitant using seed from his own crops year after year until it became run out. Most of the cultivated land was high and dry and needed no artificial drainage. Even where the water lay on the land late in the spring, however, there was rarely an attempt, as Peter Kalm in his Travels remarks, to drain it off. The habitant had patience in greater measure than industry, and he was always ready to wait for nature to do his work. Everybody depended for his implements largely upon his own workmanship, so that the tools of agriculture were of poor construction. The cultivation of even a few arpents required a great deal of manual drudgery. On the other hand, the land of New France was fertile, and every one could have plenty of it for the asking. Kalm thought it quite as good as the average in the English colonies and far better than most arable land in his own Scandinavia.

Why, then, did French-Canadian agriculture, despite the warm official encouragement given to it, make such relatively meager progress? There are several reasons for its backwardness. The long winters, which developed in the habitant an inveterate disposition to idleness, afford the clue to one of them. A general aversion to unremitting manual toil was one of the colony's besetting sins. Notwithstanding the small per capita acreage, accordingly, there was a continual complaint that not enough labor could be had to work the farms. Women and children were pressed into service in the busy seasons. Yet the colony abounded in idle men, and mendicancy at one time assumed such proportions as to require the enforcement of stringent penalties. The authorities were partly to blame for the development of this trait, for upon the slightest excuse they took the habitant from his daily routine and set him to help with warlike expeditions against the Indians and the English, or called him to build roads or to repair the fortifications. And the lure of the fur trade, which drew the most vigorous young men of the land off the farms into the forest, was another obstacle to the growth of yeomanry. Moreover, the curious and inconvenient shape of the farms, most of them mere ribbons of land, with a narrow frontage and disproportionate depth, handicapped all efforts to cultivate the fields in an intelligent way. Finally, there was the general poverty of the people. With a large family to support, for families of ten to fifteen children were not uncommon, it was hard for the settler to make both ends meet from the annual yield of a few arpents, however fertile. The habitant, therefore, took the shortest cut to everything, getting what he could out of his land in the quickest possible way with no reference to the ultimate improvement of the farm itself. If he ever managed to get a little money, he was likely to spend it at once and to become as impecunious as before. Such a propensity did not make for progress, for poverty begets slovenliness in all ages and among all races of men.

If anything like the industry and intelligence that was bestowed upon agriculture in the English colonies had been applied to the St. Lawrence valley, New France might have shipped far more wheat than beaver skins each year to Europe. But in this respect the colony never half realized the royal expectations. On the other hand, the attempt to make the land a rich grain-growing colony was far from being a flat failure. It was supporting its own population, and had a modest amount of grain each year for export to France or to the French West Indies. With peace it would soon have become a land of plenty, for the traveler who passed along the great river from Quebec to Montreal in the late autumn might see, as Kalm in his Travels tells us he saw, field upon field of waving grain extending from the shores inward as far as the eye could reach, broken only here and there by tracts of meadow and woodland. Here was at least the nucleus of a Golden West.

Of colonial industry, however, not as much can be said as of agriculture. Down to about 1663 it had given scarcely a single token of existence. The colony, until that date, manufactured nothing. Everything in the way of furnishings, utensils, apparel, and ornament was brought in the company's ships from France, and no one seemed to look upon this procedure as at all unusual. On the coming of Talon in 1665, however, the idea of fostering home industries in the colony took active shape. By persuasion and by promise of reward, the "Colbert of New France" interested the prominent citizens of Quebec in modest industrial enterprises of every sort.