Marsh Haying

Collecting Hay Along the Charles River Near Harvard
Photo by Leslie Jones c. 1930; Courtesy of the Boston Public Library Print Department.

  The abundance of native, nutrient rich salt hay (Spartina patens) present in salt marshes attracted farmers to New Englandís coasts. The marshes provided early settlers with agricultural lands that could be readily harvested and would supply an abundance of cattle feed. This method of farming became known as "marshiní" or marsh-haying (Foote-Smith et al. 1991; Stilgoe 1994). Marsh-haying was a trade based solely on salt marsh meadows and therefore depended on the tides to determine when hay could be successfully harvested. The salt hay collected would then be stacked on wooden post structures called staddles that were capable of holding several tons of hay for indefinite amounts of time.


This photo is courtesy of the Parker River
Clean Water Association (PRCWA).

  These grand hay stacks were once a common part of the coastal scene (Hay & Farb 1982). Farmers would often leave their hay stacks on these staddles until they could retrieve them by boat, or they would wait until the marsh and estuary froze enough to cart the hay directly to local markets. A farmerís only worries were strong storms or unusually high tides that would threaten to carry off their stacks. Gundalows were shallow wooden boats used to collect the salt hay stacks and carry them to shore (Stilgoe 1994). In some cases, ditches were dug in the marsh to widen the tidal creeks thereby accommodating these large and awkward boats (Mitsch & Gosselink 1986). These ditches allowed farmers to gain easier access to more areas of the marsh and was also believed to increase the productivity of the salt hay.

  The tradition of marsh haying was and still is an important resource for many farms located in coastal areas. In addition to its uses as feed, many local gardeners and nurseries had discovered that salt hay could be used as mulch. In fact many nurseries used the salt hay to provide winter cover to their sensitive perennial plants because the salt hay did not shed seeds that would later sprout into weeds. This provided another market for the salt marsh hay: when the hay was no longer in demand as feed, harvesting was able to continue and farmers sold their crop to nurseries.

Farmers Pitch Hay Onto Hay Cart
Photo by Leslie Jones c. 1940; Courtesy of the Boston Public Library Print Department.

  The impact of haying activities on salt marsh biodiversity and ecosystem health are believed to be negligible (Hawes 1986). Most land-managers believe that compared to the other serious impacts salt marshes have and continue to endure due to human activities the affect of haying was and is relatively insignificant.

Local Facts:

Today salt hay is generally not used to feed cattle since the milk produced would be too rich.
The Belle Isle Marsh was bought by John Breed in 1813. Mr. Breed was successful in running a prosperous hay farm here throughout the 19th century.


Staddles were clusters of wooden poles, often reaching up to 12 ft. in diameter; they rose approximately 2 ft. above the marsh, and were capable of holding immense quantities of salt hay.

This page was created by: Wendy Dalia
Last update: 5/26/98
Please note this page is under construction.

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