THE predominant interests and character of Virginia have been agricultural ever since its establishment. In 1930, of a total population Of 2,421,851, 67.6 per cent was rural and 39.3 per cent actually resided on farms. There were in that year 170,610 farms in Virginia, comprising 64.9 per cent of the total land area of the State. The total value of all property on these farms was $992,824,691, and the gross income from crops and livestock combined amounted to $154,380,000. The prosperity and welfare of Virginia are mainly based upon the soundness of its agricultural development.
The idea of founding an agricultural civilization in the New World did not bulk large in the minds of the members of the London Company, which sponsored the settlement of Virginia. The primary interest of these promoters was to discover immediately in the virgin areas great supplies of pitch, tar, soap ashes, resin, flax, cordage, iron, copper, glass, and timber for shipbuilding and other purposes. For many years prior to the permanent settlement at Jamestown, the mother country had been forced, through its own diminishing supply, to import these commodities from such uncertain sources as Germany, Poland, Russia, and Sweden. Although the first efforts of the early colonists were devoted to finding and delivering the needed commodities, it soon became manifest to leaders like Captain John Smith that the labor supply in the struggling colony was inadequate for such a task. In order to survive, the adventurers had to concentrate their energies upon securing food and upon building houses and forts. Thus, whether they came into the New World by way of Jamestown, Virginia, or Plymouth, Massachusetts, or Charles Town, South Carolina, farming was their occupation.
To a much larger degree than is commonly recognized, the colonists were beneficiaries of the Indians. Of more lasting value than the actual supplies they obtained were the agricultural plants and practices they adopted from the natives. Experiments enabled them eventually to acclimate many European plants, but at the outset they depended upon such native crops as Indian corn, potatoes, and tobacco, the yields of which on virgin soil were quick and certain.
With the arrival of more colonists from the Old World, the farm clearings increased in extent, and the red man was driven farther and farther westward. No epic in all history is more colorful than this subduing of a great wilderness to the purposes of civilized man. European livestock was introduced, principally the English breeds, and in the course of a few years the new settlers became independent as far as the necessities of life were concerned.
Two economic characteristics stand out prominently in colonial agriculture--its extensive character, with a thin application of labor and capital on a large area of land, and its self-sufficiency. While not completely isolated from commercial relations with Europe, the colonists generally produced for home consumption rather than for sale. Self-sufficiency was a most important feature of the early American farm. By and large, only luxuries were bought and the only buyers were the well-to-do. Necessary clothing was produced at home. The flax, the wool, and later the cotton were carded, spun, and woven by slaves or members of the farmer's family, and from home-grown products. Leather came from cattle on the place and was fashioned by a shoemaker on each plantation. Homemade implements usually sufficed for tilling the fields and for carpentry. The farm provided a bountiful food supply. Practically the only articles of diet it did not yield were salt, molasses, rum, tea, and coffee. Salt was a necessity, and rum a customary and popular beverage; both were important in the internal trade of the times. Tea and coffee were little used by farmers in the pre-Revolutionary days, though shortly after the Revolution their use was widely extended.
The typical Virginia farmer of colonial days did not own a large mansion and numerous slaves. Admiral Chadwick in Causes of the Civil War estimates that of the 52,128 Virginia slaveholders in 1860 one-third held but one or two slaves, half held one to four, and only 114 persons owned as many as 100 each. T.J.Wertenbaker's study of rent rolls in a number of Tidewater counties indicates clearly that most of the colonial farmers were yeomen and that many of these rose from the estate of indentured servants. Such findings have a disturbing effect upon widely current tradition, but they in no wise obscure the stability and worth of the early farming classes. Nothing can detract from the luster of the civilization achieved by the old Virginia planter. Thomas Nelson Page, in his collection of essays entitled The Old South, wrote:
It has been assumed by the outside world that our people lived a life of idleness and ease, a kind of hammock-swing, 'sherbet-sipping' existence, fanned by slaves, and in their pride, served on bended knees ... Any master who had a successfully conducted plantation was sure to have given it his personal supervision with an unremitting attention which would not have failed to secure success in any other calling. If this was true of the master, it was much more so of the mistress.
The early manor was based on the self-sufficient principle that characterized all the farms of Virginia. Negroes were taught trades as blacksmiths, carpenters, masons, millers, shoemakers, weavers, and spinners. But when the wolf of material want had been driven from the door, the colonists looked for some agricultural product that could be exchanged for the luxuries of the Old World, and they found it in tobacco. John Rolfe, husband of Pocahontas, is reputed to have been the first to experiment with the cultivation of tobacco. The plant grown by the Indians was of inferior quality and could not compete with the West Indian product. By 1614, however, it is said that Rolfe had succeeded in growing a tobacco leaf as 'strong, sweet and pleasant as any under the sun.'
In England the demand for tobacco was increasing. The London Company, disappointed in its hope of obtaining iron, naval stores, and the like from the colony, encouraged the growth of tobacco. A first shipment was made in 1619--singularly enough, the year in which a Dutch privateer brought the first cargo of slaves to this country. From the outset tobacco was the leading article of export from the New World. During the Colonial period it constituted between one-fourth and one-half of the total export of North America. In 1775 the tobacco sent abroad was valued at about $4,000,000. Although this exchange crop brought much wealth and luxury to Virginia planters, the methods of agriculture that it involved rapidly impoverished the soil, and after the middle of the eighteenth century many farmers in the Tidewater region began to look toward the virgin lands of the Middle West.
As late as 1830 virtually all farm work other than plowing and harrowing was being done by hand; but by 1866, except in the more backward portions of the country, most of this work was being performed by horsedriven machinery. Thomas Jefferson contributed to the perfection of the moldboard of the plow, and by 1834 Cyrus McCormick of Rockbridge County, Virginia, had developed his reaping machine. Canals, steamboats, and railroads, supplemented later by automobiles and trucks, revolutionized transportation and brought commercial markets closer to the farmer. While Virginia farmers still cling to a greater extent than farmers in most other States to a self-sufficing type of economy, their agriculture is now chiefly commercial, varied in its total output, but with specialization of crops or livestock in each region.
Cotton is commonly regarded as the plant that most widely absorbs the energies of Southern farm folks. The term 'cotton economy' has become almost synonymous with the one-crop system of the South and its numerous attendant evils of high tenancy ratios, low living standards, and impoverished soils. 'Tobacco economy' closely parallels that of cotton. But though extensive areas in Virginia today are devoted to the raising of tobacco and limited areas are planted to cotton, the physical factors of climate, topography, and soils have operated to insure here such a diversity of agricultural interests as prevails in few other States. As a result, the farmers of Virginia have not all suffered in the same manner or degree as those elsewhere during the recent years of agricultural depression.
Virginia is divided into five major agricultural divisions that are not identical with the natural divisions of the State. The soils of the Tidewater region are mainly alluvial in nature, and this area yields the corn, wheat, alfalfa, clover, and grasses of general farming. Proximity to the Atlantic Ocean, with its modifying effect upon temperatures and assurance of adequate rainfall, and the presence of light sandy loams make this section suited to the efficient and economic production of truck crops on a large scale. The eastern shore counties of Accomac: and Northampton are among the largest potato-producing counties in the United States. Because of its favorable geographical situation, Virginia is able to place its vegetables in Northern markets after the peak season is over in the Carolinas and before New Jersey and Long Island produce has matured. The Tidewater division is the principal peanut-growing region of the State, and Virginia ranks high among the leading States in the production of this commodity. Some cotton is grown in a few Tidewater counties.
Middle Virginia is one of the best general farming sections of the State. Its varied soils permit of a wide diversification in crops. Corn, tobacco, wheat, hay, and oats are the principal products; but truck crops, legumes, and fruits also thrive here. A large part of the tobacco produced in the Old Dominion is grown in the southern portion of middle Virginia. This division of the State is well adapted to livestock because of a grazing season from nine to ten months long; dairying flourishes, particularly in the northern part, which is accessible to Washington and other eaEtern markets.
In Piedmont Virginia the soils are generally underlain with red clay, and, with proper rotation of crops and appropriate fertilizers, can be brought to a high state of productivity. There is much general farming in this region, and both soil and climate make the Virginia Piedmont one of the best fruit-growing sections in the world. Here the Albemarle pippin has its home, and winesaps and other standard varieties of apples are extensively grown, along with peaches, pears, plums, and grapes.
The Valley of Virginia is made up of fertile limestone soils, among the best to be found anywhere. Wheat is grown extensively in this area. So characteristic is this crop that during the War between the States the Shenandoah Valley was known as the Granary of the Confederacy. Bluegrass flourishes here and provides pasturage for livestock. Here, also, conditions are ideal for apple growing, and many parts of the valley are becoming vast apple orchards, producing fruit of exceptionally fine quality.
The altitude of Appalachia or southwest Virginia Varies from 1,000 to 3,000 feet or more; the region is traversed by ranges of the Alleghenies. Much of the soil of this section, enriched by limestone, produces bluegrass for grazing, and cattle constitutes a leading resource of the region. General farming and truck gardening are also important in this area. Cabbages and late potatoes figure prominently among the products. Burley tobacco is extensively grown in a few southwestern counties.
The estimated gross income from farm production in Virginia in 1935 (the latest year for which complete estimates are available) was $162,008,000. Of this total $84,080,000 was derived from crops of various sorts, and $77,928,000 from livestock and livestock products. The principal crops in terms of 'farm value' (obtained by multiplying quantities produced by average selling prices) were: corn, $29,787,000; tobacco, $18,765,000; hay, $12,667,000; apples, $11,686,000; wheat, $7,196,000; Irish or white potatoes, $5,443,000; peanuts, $4,939,000. The products of farm gardens were valued at $9,100,000, and the products of forests on farm land at $6,661,000. Truck crops had a farm value Of $5,550,000. Cotton and cottonseed yielded only $1,950,000-less than the sweet potato yield of $2,466,000 and the miscellaneous grain yield Of $2,041,000. In the category of livestock and livestock products, the principal items were: milk, $28,295,000; hogs, $13,748,000; eggs, $13,494,000; and poultry, $9,073,000. In the production of tobacco Virginia ranked next to North Carolina and Kentucky, and in apples next to Washington and New York.
In 1920 the farm population of Virginia comprised 1,064,417 persons, or 46.1 per cent of the total population. But by 1930, as a result of the marked urban trend all over the United States, the number had dropped to 950,757, or 39.3 per cent of the total population in that year. The economic depression of recent years has operated to check this downward tendency, and in 1935 the farm population was 1,053,469-a gain of 102,712 for the five-year period.
In 1935, 17,645,000 acres, or 68.5 per cent of Virginia's total land area, consisted of land in farms. Of such farm land, about 8,000,000 acres were available for crops and about 3,900,000 acres were under cultivation. The total number of farms was 197,632, representing a combined value for land and buildings of $593,855,000, an average per farm of approximately $3,000. While the average value of land and buildings per acre was $51.16 in 1930, under the influence of the depression this figure had declined to $33.66 by 1935.
During the 75 years from 1850 to 1925 the average acreage per farm in Virginia decreased from 340 to 88.8. By 1930 the average had risen a little, to 98.1; but a declining tendency was again manifest in the 1935 figure of 89.3. Of the 197,632 farms in 1935, 140,618 or considerably more than two-thirds contained fewer than 100 acres each, and 52,585 contained fewer than 20 acres each. Those containing 500 acres or more numbered only 3,306, and only 691 contained 1,000 acres or more.
Of those who in 1935 were operating Virginia's 97,632 farms, 58,386 or 29.5 per cent were tenants on the land they cultivated, and of such tenant farmers 42,874 or 73.4 per cent were white and 15,512 or 26.6 per cent were Negroes. The ratio of tenants to owners in 1935 was virtually the same as in 1880, when the first census of farm tenancy was taken. Among all the Southern States, only Florida, West Virginia, and Maryland have a lower tenancy ratio, and all others except Florida show a substantial increase in tenancy since 1880.
The lowest percentage of tenancy recorded in the State since 1880 was in 1925, when tenant farmers were cultivating 25.2 per cent of all farms and 19.7 per cent of all land in farms. In 1930 the corresponding percentages were 28.1 and 22.9; while by 1935 they had increased to 29.5 and 25. The increase since 1930 has been chiefly among white tenants and in the mountain areas. Of the Tidewater counties, where tenancy ratios are highest, several have recorded decreases. Nevertheless, in some counties of Virginia half or more of all the farms were being operated by tenants in 1935.
The relative economic status of owner and tenant farmers is indicated to some degree by the facts, that, in 1930, 21.6 per cent of the owners but only 7.2 per cent of the tenants had telephones; 9.3 per cent of the owners but only 2.7 per cent of the tenants had electric lights; and 10.8 per cent of the owners but only 3.4 per cent of the tenants had water piped into their dwellings.
While the total farm mortgage debt in Virginia increased from $24,000,000 in 1910 to $75,128,000 in 1935, the latter sum represented only about 12.7 per cent of the total value of farm land and buildings in the State--$593,855,000. Of Virginia's 197,632 farms in 1935, 43,451 or 22 per cent of the total were mortgaged. Virginia's percentage of mortgaged farms was the lowest of any State in the Union in 1935, with the exception of West Virginia with 16.5 per cent and New Mexico with 19.9 per cent. In that year also Virginia had next to the lowest farm real estate tax per $100 of true value among all the 48 states, the rate being 70¢ as against a National average Of $1.14.
In common with many other States, particularly those in the South, Virginia confronts a serious problem in the matter of soil conservation. Historians have shown that soil exhaustion was an important factor a century or more ago in the extensive migration from the rural areas of Virginia to other States in the West and farther south. The wasteful practices of a frontier civilization, especially in the extensive and continuous growing of tobacco, led to impoverishment of the soil over wide areas, so that one of the major agricultural problems of the State is that of rehabilitating worn-out lands. While the gravity of the problem has long been recognized and measures have been advocated for its amelioration within the State, particular focus has been brought to bear on the matter in recent years by the Soil Conservation Service of the Federal Government. A Nation-wide erosion survey was made in the fall of 1934, and the situation was found to be so serious that in 1937 more than 400,000 acres of farm lands were included in the co-operative projects of Virginia farmers with the Soil Conservation Service. The principal areas concerned are near Danville, Lynchburg, and Charlottesville, and demonstrations are being made here of an eleven-point erosion control program designed to check wasteful processes that lead to soil devastation and to restore the fertility of depleted soil, not only in the demonstration areas but throughout the State.
A notable force in the agricultural development of the State has been the Virginia Polytechnic Institute at Blacksburg. Through its farm and home demonstration work and its agricultural experiment stations, it has strongly influenced sound agricultural practices in Virginia. The State Department of Agriculture and Immigration has also functioned for many years as a regulatory and informational agency, with great benefit to Virginia agriculture. In cooperation with the United States Department of Agriculture, it maintains a crop reporting service, which collects and distributes statistical material of indispensable value to farmers of the State. Three National farm organizations, the Grange, the Farm Bureau, and the Farmers' Union, operate helpfully in Virginia; and in addition, there are several organizations devoted to various specialized interests, such as horticulture and dairying.
During more than 300 years of agriculture in Virginia, significant changes have occurred. The outstanding single trend has been away from a self-sufficing type of agriculture to that of a more commercial kind. The introduction of heavy machinery into farming, together with improved transportation, give a comparative advantage to western farmers in wheat, corn, and hogs; and the rapid increase of population in eastern metropolitan areas is stimulating in Virginia, as elsewhere in the East, the production of such bulky and perishable agricultural products as milk, vegetables, and fruits. With less than half of its available crop land actually used for crops in 1934, the State's fullest agricultural development still lies far in the future.