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Burris, G., Elsner, J., & Doel, R. E. (2018). Plantation Records as a Source of Historical Weather and Agricultural Data.
Plantation records from the southeastern United States have long been an important source for historical, social, and cultural narratives. However, they also represent an underutilized source for meteorological, environmental, and agricultural data from the antebellum period. This study has two goals. Firstly, we advocate for a more systematic application of these records for quantitative analysis. Secondly, we present some early results from such a study using the records of Shirley Plantation in Virginia. We show how these records can be mined for data on weather and agricultural activity and how their broader usefulness is extended with the inclusion of appropriate meta-data. Observations of weather conditions and crop responses to seasonal changes lend themselves to quantitative analysis that can improve our understanding of the local weather and climate of that period. We present a case study comparing last spring freeze date in this region from the late 1820s to 2010s and suggest that last spring freeze now occurs approximately 23 days earlier compared to approximately 200 years ago. We also include summaries of the response of specific crops and cultivars since this knowledge may help the farmers' of today adapt to changing weather conditions. While individual plantation records may have idiosyncratic limitations, plantation records, along with other types of detailed historical records, can still provide rich detail for specific locations or events. Plantation records are not limited to the southeastern US and include diverse geographic locations in less developed areas which were often the same areas were enslaved labor was exploited under the plantation system.
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