Farming at Clermont

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 and specifically by George Washington in his survey (at age 18) of Clermont in 1750.  He noted the existence on his survey of two areas of “rich barrens” (barren of trees), grass lands promoted by Indian burning.  In the Woodland Period (1,100 BC- 1650 AD), the last prior to European contact, the use of settled villages increased, as did the growing of crops of maize, squash, and beans, for which forested land was also burned.
The Europeans in turn, farmed based on their experience in the cultures from which came, and also in response to the local environmental conditions, labor available, and to market demand.  With the increasing world-wide demand for wheat from the middle of the 18th century (feeding troops during continuing wars in Europe, feeding the Caribbean which produced higher-price sugar from sugar cane rather than food and animals), 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”, on every farm, unlike the more specialized farming of today.  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 and fowls.  When President Lincoln established the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1862, 90% of Americans were farmers.
By 1940, only 30% of Americans were farmers, average farm size was increasing, as were the capital costs of equipment and machinery, but farm income was only 67% of that of non-farm workers by 1948. Many who came back from WWII did not return to farm life, and with low wages, many others left for the city. Agricultural suppliers consolidated as did distributors and processors of agricultural commodities,  combining with government sponsored research, created a market system incentivizing individual farmers to produce larger amounts of a single crop or two, or a single type of animal.
In the Valley and at Clermont, the practice of general mixed farming continued up to the middle of the 20th century, characterized by its great diversity of enterprise, which supported sustainability. The last tenant farmer to live on and run the farm at Clermont, Gilbert Royston, retired from farming in 1948.  He owned all the animals and equipment, which he sold at auction. The animals, machinery, harness, etc. advertised in his auction poster was almost identical to the items listed on the auction poster after the death of Edward McCormick, owner of Clermont, in 1870. The middle of the 20th century showed the great shift in agricultural practice and production.  After 1950, Clermont’s land was often rented for a single crop, or a small cow-calf operation continued, but infrastructure (land, herds, buildings, fencing) deteriorated.
Elizabeth William’s gift, both to the State of the farm and to the Foundation of her other assets in 2004, required the continuation of active production agriculture, primarily in order to maintain what was an historic, open, agricultural landscape as such  (based on the knowledge that farms that are not farmed become forests, or houses), but also to bolster a locally-declining agricultural sector and education about agriculture. The Foundation as manager of the 360-acre site looked for ways to make this requirement sustainable and useful in the 21st century, without the lower-cost labor prevalent until the 1950’s and in the face of greatly increased capital costs in the farming business, volatile farm commodity prices, a changing climate, and the increasingly larger land-base of farms today.
Today the number of American farms continues to drop, from 2.2 million in 2007 to 2 million in 2021.  While the percentage of U.S. employment directly on the farm is now down to 1.3%, the entire agriculture and food sector employs 10.5% of all U.S. workers.  And given that the average age of U.S. farmers is nearly 60, a new generation of farmers must be engaged, along with many new entrants to the agriculture and food service industries.  This needs to start with opportunities for students in school to participate in agriculture education programs and to come to production farms, as well as farm service businesses.
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 for the renew of agriculture at Clermont. These included: improvements in the quality and consistency of animal herds, greater diversity of enterprise, marketing related to current demands, AND, opportunities to work with students by partnering with existing school programs, FFFA, 4-H and others.  Clermont also partners with the Virginia Cooperative Extension Service for adult farmers in providing a venue for field schools, classes, demonstrations, and support activities for local farmers, such as the pooling of the wool production of small sheep raisers for transport to large buyers.
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, to adopt best practices, consider sustainability throughout, and to develop new partnerships – in other words, a contemporary farm which preserves an historic agricultural landscape in its original use, while serving agricultural education and strengthening the future of agriculture in Virginia.

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