When you think of a farmer… By
When you think of a farm, you probably imagine overalls, hay bales, cows, and that earthy smell. Fresh vegetables are grown and sent to market. Fresh baskets of eggs are trucked off for breakfasts in more urban climes. It has been going on in Virginia for a long time.
Think about it. The first English settlers in America hit our shores down in Jamestown. They learned the tricks of the trade from the people who were already here, the Powhatans and Monacans. They had been here for a few years, rejecting Spaniards around 1540. Oral history says that the Powhatans came here from the Northwest around 800 years ago and the Monacans taught them to plant maize. Farming has been around our area for about the last 3,000 years. And it wasn’t just to feed the kids. Tribal leaders would ask for contributions from local communities to share during hard times. It was Virginia’s first tax!
Many of the founders of Virginia traveled up the James to get to what became Richmond and our surrounding towns in the late 1600’s. When you look at the history of some of the plantations that remain, they are tied to not only the founding of our city, but to our State, our Country, and their roots are deep in farming.
William Byrd II was born here but returned to England as a youngster. He came back to Virginia in 1704, got busy founding Richmond and Petersburg, established our boundary with North Carolina, and built his home, Westover, in 1736. It is said that George Washington himself planted some of the trees there.
Shirley Plantation was first settled in 1613. Edward Hill established a farm there in 1638, but the “Great House” that you see today wasn’t built until 1738. Like most of the plantations and other “agri-business” of the era, the primary crop was tobacco, but corn and livestock were also pretty lucrative.
As you travel around our immediate area you see some names with pretty significant ties to our farming history. James Nuckolls owned a dairy farm in the West End. He married the lovely Susannah Pouncy and they had their first son in 1710. Hanover has long been agricultural and was named in honor of King George I of England, who also happened to be the Elector of Hannover, Germany. While there is a tribe with ties to the name “Tuckahoe”, the word “tuckahoe” came to be a derogatory term for someone who owned a bunch of land in Virginia’s fertile lowlands, but didn’t really know a great deal about how to grow things. Our first Corporate Barons.
Many of these early farms and homes are still around. You can tour the great Jamestown Plantations as if you head East on Cary Street and just keep driving towards Virginia Beach. You can go to Meadow Farm Park in Henrico and see an example of farming life from around 1800. You can still see the Curles Mansion on Route 5. The Curles family bought property there in 1635, and it is said that the site represents four centuries of Virginia farming.
It is neat to see places like this, Jefferson’s Monticello, and Washington’s Mount Vernon, and realize where we came from and what kind of ties we really have to the land. The Virginia Department of Agriculture started a list called the Virginia Century Farm Program. Many of the farms on this list date back to the first settlers of this area. In order to qualify for the program, though, the farm must be active, and have been continuously farmed and in the same family for at least 100 years. While handing down the farm was a pretty common practice two or three hundred years ago, it’s not so commonplace today. But check this out:
As of April 16, 2012, the list of Virginia Century Farms was at 1,204. You may not know any of the farmers, but when you look at the list you’ll see names like Lee and Shackleford, Randolph and Tyler, Byrd and Gooch. You may not recognize the faces, but the names should ring a bell.