WELD, WILLIAM, farmer, merchant, publisher, and journalist; b. 10 Dec. 1824 in Berwick St John, England, son of the Reverend Joseph Weld and Elizabeth Eleanor Waks; m. 1845 Agnes Johnston, and they had nine sons and two daughters; d. 3 Jan. 1891 in London, Ont.
William Weld spent his youth at Berwick St John, where he was educated privately. He emigrated to North America in 1843 and took up a farm at Delaware, Upper Canada. There he prospered, applying the ideas about scientific agriculture that he obtained from British and American journals to the solution of practical problems in Canadian farming. Weld soon became well known locally as a successful farmer and a breeder of superior livestock. This success led him to establish a seed distribution business, the Canadian Agricultural Emporium, through which he introduced Red Fife wheat [see David Fife*] and other improved varieties of grains to the Delaware district.
Weld believed that farming was a profession and that farmers, whom he often called agriculturalists, required professional training. But in his opinion agricultural colleges were refuges for impractical dreamers and political appointees. From his own experience he knew that agricultural journals were a good source of practical knowledge for farmers. Since his neighbours were already seeking his advice, the transition from local expert to agricultural journalist seemed natural. The Farmer’s Advocate and Home Magazine, which Weld founded in 1866, was intended to be both a business venture and a vehicle for the propagation of his ideas on agriculture.
For a time the Advocate was written and edited at Weld’s Delaware farm, but the paper soon became his major interest and around 1867 he set up a publishing office in nearby London, leaving the farm to his sons William Stephen and Joseph. The early editions of the Advocate consisted of only a few pages but after some years, when it had become a well-known monthly, it carried informative articles on agricultural techniques as well as news, a women’s page, a children’s section, and fiction aimed at rural readers. By the 1880s the Advocate was the most widely read farm journal in Canada, with an estimated circulation of 17,000 copies a month. A western edition, published in Winnipeg by Weld’s son Thomas Saxon, was established in 1891.
When Weld began his career in journalism, Canadian agriculture was going through a period of fundmental change. In Ontario, farmers shifted into livestock production and dairying as fluctuating prices made wheat an unreliable cash crop. Weld encouraged the move to a more diversified agriculture with articles promoting new techniques such as winter dairying and the use of ensilage. He also used the columns of the Advocate to promote settlement in Manitoba and the northwest, arguing that farmers there should concentrate on ranching and grain growing and leave dairying to central Canadians.
The growth of state involvement in the agricultural economy was a prominent theme in Weld’s thought. He approved of some government programs and even claimed credit for prompting the dominion government to strengthen the quarantine regulations which protected livestock from pleuro-pneumonia and other diseases uncommon in Canada but endemic elsewhere. He also supported regulations to prevent the sale of adulterated milk to cheese and butter factories. However, in the early 1870s Weld attacked the Ontario government over its plans to set up an agricultural college and model farm, suggesting that the education of farmers should be left to agricultural journals and that private enterprises such as his agricultural emporium should be subsidized to encourage experimental work. In 1884, when the dominion government proposed to establish a central experimental farm in Ottawa, he repeated his objections and charged that the farm would inevitably fall into the hands of incompetent political hacks and impractical scientists.
Weld’s attacks were based on his belief that governments were incapable of operating an experimental farm that would provide useful information for farmers. He may also have been afraid that experimental farms would challenge the prominent position of the Advocate as a source of agricultural advice. However, his distrust of government was alleviated when William Saunders* and James Wilson Robertson*, agricultural experts whose abilities he respected, were appointed to the Central Experimental Farm in 1886. Within a few years, the pages of the Advocate were enriched by articles from Robertson and other government officials, a development that forced Weld to reconsider his opinion of government farms. Finally, Saunders’s success in reducing political interference at the Central Experimental Farm persuaded Weld to accept what he called “the inevitable,” and his attacks ceased. By 1890 he had reconciled himself to government involvement in agricultural research and education and was lavishing praise on John Carling*, the founder of the experimental farm system.
Active in a number of agrarian organizations, in 1874 Weld helped to form the first western Ontario chapter of the National Grange of the Patrons of Husbandry. The same year he became master of the Delaware Grange and provisional steward of the Dominion Grange. Weld agreed with the Grangers that party politics divided farmers and prevented them from speaking with one voice on agricultural issues but disapproved of their boycotts and cooperative marketing schemes. He soon resigned his executive positions, began a series of critical articles, and by 1880 had completely dissociated himself from the Grange.
Weld died in a bizarre accident. While climbing into the attic of his home to investigate a leak, he fell through a skylight. His head lodged in the water reservoir that served his bathroom and, unable to extricate himself, he drowned.
Through his outspoken editorials prodding governments into more effective regulation, his attacks on party spirit and patronage, and his promotion of new farming techniques, William Weld became the best known agricultural journalist of his time. The tone of his prose was often acerbic and sometimes intemperate, but he was willing to admit his errors and move with the times. His contemporaries saw him as a man of vision, a pioneer of good farming practices, and an independently minded defender of the farmer’s interests. The survival of the Farmer’s Advocate into the 20th century testifies to his achievements.
Can., House of Commons, Journals, 1884, app.6. Farmer’s Advocate and Home Magazine (London, Ont.), 1867–91. J. E. Middleton and Fred Landon, The province of Ontario: a history, 1615–1927 (5v., Toronto, [1927–28]). A. [G.] Bogue, “The fighting farmer, William Weld,” Western Ontario Hist. Notes (London), 3 (1945): 75–78.