Agriculture – Overview

What is now Clermont was “farmed” by Native Americans who systematically burned the Shenandoah Valley to produce an environment in which game could be produced (hardwood forests) and hunted (grassland savannahs), an environment commented upon by early European settlers.

The Europeans in turn farmed based on their experience in the cultures from which they came, and in response to these local environmental conditions, labor available, and to market demand.  With the increasing world-wide demand for wheat from the middle of the 18th century, the Shenandoah Valley became the American South’s most substantial producer.

Clermont not only participated in that boom, but was itself a champion producer, using enslaved labor to accomplish it.  Despite this, Valley farmers and the owners of Clermont were not mono-culturists, but practitioners of what cultural geographers call “general mixed farming”.  In general they produced at least as much corn as they did wheat, along with other grains, and they raised a wide variety of stock

In the Valley and at Clermont, this practice of general mixed farming continued up to the middle of the 20th century, characterized by diversity of enterprise, which supported sustainability.  After 1950, Clermont’s land was often rented, or a small cow-calf operation continued, but infrastructure (land, herds, buildings, fencing) deteriorated.

Both the gifts to the State and to the Foundation in 2004 emphasized the continuation of active production agriculture, primarily in order to maintain what was an historic agricultural landscape as such  (based on the knowledge that farms that are not farmed become forests, or houses), but also to support a locally-disappearing agricultural sector.  The Foundation as manager of the 360-acre site looked for ways to make this condition sustainable in the 21st century, without the lower-cost labor prevalent until the 1950’s.

From research on the history of farm, talks with farmers and Extension Agents, and from analyses performed by students and faculty at Virginia Tech, came several pathways: improvements in the quality and consistency of animal herds, greater diversity of enterprise, marketing related to increasing demand for local production and distribution, etc.

With a renewed commitment to production agriculture, and an additional educational mission, the Department and the Foundation have worked to bring back the infrastructure of the farm, to diversify enterprise (sheep were added to beef cattle, and now pigs), to adopt best practices, consider sustainability throughout, and to develop new partnerships – in other words, modern, positive historic preservation which contributes to the present.

These partnerships include agreements with the Clarke County Public Schools and Farm Bureau to support agricultural education as a “lab” facility, with Extension Services to provide class sites, and with Virginia Tech and its Middleburg Agricultural Research and Extension Center for shared professional management, student training and research opportunities at the two-year, four-year, and graduate levels, and field demonstration projects (silvo-pasture, etc.). to help local farmers assess new practices.

Clermont is indeed a very historic farm, but in its case its “historic preservation” means it is today a modern working farm, which also serves the interests of agricultural education and strengthening the future of agriculture in Virginia.