Saturday, July 22, 2017  

Agriculture in the Northern Neck
A Proud Legacy  

Along with our wonderful water views, the expansive fields of agriculture are an amazing sight in this area of the world. Vast fields of green corn, oats, barley, wheat and soybeans stretch out to the horizon. In the spring, summer and fall, farmers’ stands dot the road-front offering a vast variety of homegrown produce. Nine vineyards are thriving.

Farmers markets are run in Irvington, Kilmarnock, Heathsville, Matthews and Tappahannock and offer their wares on Saturdays from spring through fall. 

Agriculture in this area has been going on for quite a while. Since the 1600s because of the flat workable lands, accessible by water, tobacco was one of the earliest cash crops. Tobacco depleted the soil and the early farmers, not knowing about soil testing and fertilization, simply moved their crops to new land.

In the late 1700s Edmund Ruffin, born in Prince Edward County, explored scientific farming. Ruffin focused on restoring “worn out” land from tobacco farming.

By the 1860s 34 of Virginia’s counties, both Piedmont and Tidewater, contained a majority slave population. The plantations and farms that evolved relied on this work force to generate large crops.

In the early 1900s truck farmers worked the land supplying food for large populations of the eastern cities. By the 1920s losses of agriculture due to insects led to the research and development of insecticides. By the 1960s agriculture was notably more automated by regional developmental groups. The concern about contamination of the surrounding waters was evidenced by traces of chemicals found in fish.

By the 1990s peanuts became the economic pillar of agriculture in Southeastern Virginia. Suffolk had approximately 14,600 acres and the Isle of Wight 16,206 in this crop. The Isle of Wight is the well-known home of the Smithfield Hams made from pigs fed on this crop.

By the year 2000, strides in industrial and sewage treatment as well as pollution controls moved to the forefront in the agricultural focus.

The farmer of today uses large modern equipment with GPS and computerized records. The mechanical issues of use and repair continue. Some things never change. The long hours of planting, fertilizing, and harvesting. The frustration of weather changes due to drought, wet, wind, critter and insect damage. The increasing costs of fertilizer, equipment and maintenance. Strong generational influence and pride of ownership in the farming profession (often called the “call of the land”). Many farmlands absorb into other farms at the time of their sale or the death of the farmers, according to Sam Johnson, retired Westmoreland extension agent.

Sam Johnson, Soil and Water Non Point Source Specialist, states that farming is “fairly stable” in the Northern Neck. The biggest changes he has witnessed during his 31 years as the Extension Agent for Westmoreland County have been in the crop production and cultural techniques. No till farming, used almost exclusively on the Northern Neck, has decreased dramatically the erosion of the soil. With this technique, the soil is not tilled, or turned. Winter crop is planted in the fall.  As this crop of winter rye or wheat grows, its roots, surprisingly growing to a depth of 2-3 foot, set nitrogen. This saves not only the purchase of this increasingly expensive additive, but the fuel and time of the farmers.  Early spring the farmers apply herbicide and then seed directly through the surface of the field. Tilling, once thought to be the best practice, now is known to disrupt the structure of the soil. Microorganisms break down organic matter to make it available to the plants. When left undisturbed, this process works well, when disrupted, not so much. When tilled, weed seeds are exposed to light and will grow with more vigor.

Genetically modified seed is seen by Sam as another great improvement in the farming industry. Environmentally safe herbicides can be applied to kill the weeds without affecting the crop. The planting cycle continues with the applications of fertilizer and herbicides. This is all based on regular soil sample recommendations.  The Agriculture Agents, or Ag agents, at the extension offices as well as the Soil and Water programs carefully monitor these applications. The farmers do not want to spend their time and money on applying more of either to their land and do not desire to pollute the waters.

Nitrogen, which can be unstable and easily leached through the soil into the water, can be applied in stages so that its uptake is increased and leaching decreased.

Sam states that there is an amazingly high participation rate of 80%-90% for nutrient management planning among farmers. Continuous training is available through the extension service. The extension offices offer training and education to the farmers through the Agriculture Agent. Nutritional Services are available while 4H and Master Gardeners work with the homeowners. The extension offices operate under the land grant universities, which in Virginia is Virginia Tech. They are set up to offer educational programs, soil testing, research, support and training.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service states that soil erosion on cropland has declined by more than 40 percent over the past 25 years, despite increased development. No till farming has had a strong affect preventing that erosion. 

Matt Lewis, our current Ag agent, states that we normally have three crops a year in this area.  Winter crop, barley or wheat, often harvested in the spring; summer crop, often corn or grain and harvested in late summer; followed by soybean.

Our water quality is a strong focus for those of us in this area. Farmlands are being cultivated using setbacks or buffers. These buffer zones, when used on farmlands or on developed land aids in the absorption of toxins before they flow into our waterways. Toxins can be obvious as in herbicides or fertilizers or less obvious as in brake liner, oil, gas, or chemicals from everyday usage.  Buffer zones are most effective when left in a natural state or planted with native plants.  

We can learn from the farmers. Establish native plant buffer zones on your land. Do not plant up to the water’s edge.  Use pesticides and herbicides responsively, according to the directions. And consult the extension office with any questions.

The Farm Museum
Below Heathsville, east on 360, stands an impressive barn shaped building. The Farm Museum was established when Margaret and Luther Welch donated the land. Alan Welch, his son, recalls at least four generations of farming. The building houses a collection of equipment, some antique and some simply old, collected by Luther over his years of farming.

Educational programs and open houses are held several times a year. The Northern Neck Master Gardeners have established a teaching garden, tended by the school children.  Seeds are grown in John Lunsford’s greenhouse, transplanted with the help of the children and Master Gardeners, tended and harvested for food banks. Each class of Master Gardeners, held every two years, requires the trainee to develop and present a project. The teaching garden was developed as an approved project and is now in its 2nd year of production. The website for the farm museum is thefarmmuseum.org.

So as you drive or cruise around this wonderful area we live in. Take the time to admire the skill with which the farmer tends his trade. See the freshly harvested fields of golden grain and the newly planted soybeans. Be patient when continuing along the roads behind a large piece of farm equipment. Think of that cereal you gulped down this morning, the corn or bread you may enjoy for dinner or the wine you may drink tonight.