Pilgrim Farming

The Thanksgiving holiday celebrates bounty. Probably nobody is more grateful for a successful harvest than those first settlers of the Plymouth colony, because crop failure meant hunger and starvation.

Tom Sauer is a soil scientist with the USDA. He says farming was a huge challenge for the Pilgrims because the soil in coastal Massachusetts was very different from their native England.

"The particular area that the Plymouth colony settled in had these shallow, sandy soils over bedrock. Where they came from in southern England and Wales, they had deeper, finer-textured soils, loamy soils there so they were more nutrient-rich, held more water for growing crops," says Sauer.

The Pilgrims brought seeds with them, mostly small grains that didn’t grow well in the sandy soil. Sauer says Native Americans in the area were growing different crops, and the Pilgrims took note.

One technique new settlers eventually learned from their native neighbors was called “Three Sisters”.

"The Native Americans had this technique where they grew corn, beans, and squash together, and those were the three sisters," he says. "The idea was that this intercropping, as we call it now, took advantage of all of the available light, water, and nutrients in this site because the different crops had their main growth patterns at different times of the year."

Even if one of the Three Sister crops would fail, one or both of the others might make up for that loss.