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A phone call to USDA’s National Agricultural Library (NAL) seeking the original magazines with Robert Frost’s first published prose has now given rise to the library’s newest online exhibit. But why did a Frost aficionado call an agricultural library looking for these?
Because, before Robert Frost became ROBERT FROST, he was a chicken farmer with 300 white Wyandotte hens from 1900 to 1909 in Derry, New Hampshire. However, Frost wasn't ever really a good fit for farming—he had serious hay fever, for one—and coops and eggs were a long way from four Pulitzer prizes for poetry.
With a canny knack for marketing his words, Frost sold 11 stories between 1903 and 1905 about the business, more or less, of producing poultry to the trade magazines The Farm-Poultry and The Eastern Poultryman. John Henry Robinson, editor of The Farm-Poultry, called these “light reading for warm weather…a bit of fiction, which we imagine many will find as entertaining as we have.”
More than 100 years after Frost published these stories, NAL pulled from its stacks and digitized what may be one of the few remaining original sets of magazines with the stories by the egg farmer who would go on to read poems at President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. It was also the impetus for NAL to create a new online exhibit: Frost on Chickens www.nal.usda.gov/exhibits/ipd/frostonchickens.
The kernel of the NAL exhibit is Frost’s decade in agriculture and readable images of each of Frost’s stories. The online exhibit takes the viewer on a digitized walk through highlights from NAL’s collection of USDA and others’ research and provides instruction for the producer and consumer on poultry and egg production, marketing and purchasing. Content is built around story themes, beginning with what might have appeared alongside Frost’s stories through material being published today.
For example, there’s Marketing Eggs by Parcel Post: USDA Farmer’s Bulletin 830, (August 1917), which proved to producers who lacked other “satisfactory marketing facilities” that they could profitably consider selling eggs by parcel post, by shipping “more than 9,131 eggs… while breaking only 209 too badly to be used.” And at the other end of the timeline: "Cholesterol and Vitamin D Content of Eggs in the U.S. Retail Market," Journal of Food Composition and Analysis, 29(2013) 110-116.
NAL rounds out the exhibit with links to the cutting edge poultry and egg research laboratories of USDA’s Agricultural Research Service.
Frost summed up his agricultural endeavors in a letter to the Literary Editor at the Boston Evening Transcript in 1915: “I kept farm, so to speak for nearly ten years, but less as a farmer than as a fugitive from the world that seemed to me to 'disallow' me. It was all instinctive, but I can see now that I went away to save myself and fix myself before I measured myself against all creation.”