Agriculture in the Valley

Agriculture in the Chesapeake Region (Virginia/Maryland), in the Shenandoah Valley, and at Clermont Farm


Agriculture in the Valley

Clermont Farm, Looking at the Blue Ridge

Chesapeake region plantations produced a cash crop and generally transported their goods by the easily navigable rivers that flow throughout the region. Gradually, following initial settlement in the 1730’s, the Shenandoah Valley became an immensely fertile and highly productive agricultural portion of the Chesapeake region, but its farming economy was dominated by wheat, not tobacco.  Following a world-wide increase in the demand for wheat from the middle of the 18th century, the Shenandoah Valley’s wheat crops went by a developing road network as well as by water to the port cities of Alexandria and Baltimore, and from there directly into the international Atlantic trade.  Clermont was one of the highest producing wheat farms in the highest producing county in the Valley.

Read more about grain production in the 19th century Shenandoah Valley.

Kenneth Koons, Professor of History at VMI, points out that “Shenandoah Valley farmers’ exceptionally high levels of wheat production made the Valley a center of wheat production in Virginia and the South but, within the region, Clarke County (Clermont’s location) formed an epicenter of high levels of production.  At mid-century, in the counties of the Shenandoah Valley other than Clarke, bushels of wheat produced per improved acre of land ranged from 1.46 in Botetourt County to a high of 2.99 in Rockingham County, and bushels of wheat production per farm ranged from a low of 170 in Botetourt County to a high of about 500 in Rockingham County.  In Clarke County, by contrast, comparable figures were 5.08 and 1,130.” (see Kenneth Koons’ paper on this website: “Clermont in the Age of Grain”)

At Clermont under Edward McCormick in 1850, the farm produced 2,500 bushels of wheat, an amount that was more than twice as high as the average production of wheat per farm in the County, and which made him the 22nd highest wheat producer in Clarke, and in 1860 he produced 4,000 bushels of the grain, all with enslaved labor.  But also in 1850, he produced 1,250 bushels of corn, making him the 29th highest producer in the County, and in growing 400 bushels of oats, he was the 20th largest producer of that grain.  McCormick and Clermont were therefore almost always, in a county with superior farm performance, in the upper most quintile of all farms and farmers in Clarke County by any measure of value or production.

Read more about other types of farming and livestock raising in the Shenandoah Valley.
Wheat Harvest, Frederick Co, VA  1930's

Wheat Harvest, Frederick Co, VA 1930’s

 As Clermont’s records demonstrate, Shenandoah Valley farmers were not monoculturalists like their Tidewater co-citizens, but practiced general mixed agriculture in which in addition to wheat they produced a variety of field crops (corn, hay, and cereal grains) and raised a variety of stock.  He sold pork cuts and he overnighted in his fields the great cattle and turkey drives coming down the Valley to Baltimore and Alexandria.  In the Valley, despite its dedication to wheat, farmers raised almost a million more bushels of corn than of wheat in most 19th century census years. Farmers also kept on hand a broad variety of livestock (horses, cattle, sheep, swine, and fowl – for which Clermont was also in the upper one-fifth of all ClarkeCounty farms). Although diversity of economic enterprise characterized Valley farming, wheat served as the most important crop. Most of the farmers in the Valley lived and worked on small and middling farm sites.

Photo Info:   Wheat Harvest Scene in Frederick County, Virginia, 1930s. Source: Virginia (Richmond:  Department of Agriculture and Immigration in the State of Virginia, 1931). Clermont Farm looked like this in the 19th century, and continued to do so until 1948, when general mixed farming under a resident manager ceased.


Turkeys at Soldier's Retreat, Clarke County, Virginia.

Turkeys at Soldier’s Retreat, Clarke County, Virginia.

Clermont Farm is an example of a middling plantation within the Shenandoah Valley. Contrasted with a small plantation (19 or less slaves) and a large plantation (50+ slaves), a middling plantation usually had about 20-49 slaves.  The owners of Clermont themselves enslaved at different periods a maximum of 28-36 for work at that farm, including any continuous land they were renting or buying, from 400-600 acres total, and sometimes rented other owners’ slaves to increase production or obtain a special skill.

Again, Clermont Farm’s history demonstrates Prof. Koons’ point that the system of agriculture which cultural geographers call “general mixed farming”, the main feature of which is diversity of enterprise, remained the rule in the Valley until the middle of the 20th century.  The last full-time farm manager (on shares in farm production) was Gilbert Royston and his family, from 1939-1948, when Clermont still looked and performed much as it had under Edward McCormick, minus enslaved labor.  The Clermont Foundation is today working to restore sustainability to the farm based on that diversity of enterprise.

Photo Info:  Turkeys at Soldier’s Retreat, Clarke County, Virginia.
(Source: West Virginia Online Digital Collections, Drawings of David Hunter Strother (

Soldier’s Rest Farm is next to Clermont Farm in Clarke County, and turkeys were also grown at Clermont, as well as overnighted on the drives to Alexandria and Baltimore.


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