The Farm Crops
The crops raised on the Farm represent the type of plants 18th century farmers would have grown in Virginia. Many of the crops are heirloom varieties and are rarely found grown by farmers today.
- pesticide (use the dry leaf to repel insects)–warning: all parts of the plant are poisonous!
- ornamental (lovely pink flowers appear in mid- to late summer)
- smoking (though it is a harsh-tasting tobacco)
The Farm grows Orinoco Tobacco, an old variety that was grown here in Virginia in the 1700s. Tobacco was a highly important crop in 18th century Virginia– the entire economy was based on it. Debts and taxes were charged in pounds of tobacco, and it was only in 1769 that a law was passed allowing the payment of public levies at the rate of 2 pence per pound of tobacco, for those few who did not grow the crop.
Tobacco is a very labor-intensive crop, and wears out the soil very quickly. Growing just a few ornamental plants in your garden would not be a problem, but a whole field of tobacco takes many hours each day.
We are fortunate to have a surviving text detailing exactly how to grow tobacco in 18th century Virginia. It is called An Historical and Practical Essay on the Culture and Commerce of Tobacco, by William Tatham, published in 1800.
To summarize Tatham’s instructions for cultivating tobacco:
- Sow the seed in March or early April
- Prepare the ground where it will grow by turning it and forming small hills 3-4 feet apart
- Transplant the seedlings in late April or May, when the leaves are at least the size of a modern half-dollar
- Use a hoe to remove weeds and keep the hills high around the plants
- Care for the plant by topping (removing flower buds) and suckering (removing side shoots). The ideal plant is one that has a few, very large leaves. Any plant that is left to flower will put more energy into its flower than its leaves; make sure you leave a few plants to flower, so you will have seed for next year
- When the plants are ripe, cut the stalks and leave the plant to wilt in the sun; then, cut a slit near the base of the stalk, and push a stick through the slit in order to hang the plant to cure.
- When the plants have cured (turned leathery), strip the leaves from the stalk and tie them into bundles.
Here are exerpts of Tatham’s instructions for planting tobacco:
Sow the seed
“The plant beds, or plant patches (to use the local phrase), are the places set apart by the crop master for sowing the seed of the tobacco; and wherein the plants are suffered to grow until the season approaches for planting the crop… and they are prepared for receiving the seed in March and the early part of April, as te season suits, first by burning upon them large heaps of brush wood, the stalks of the maize or indian corn, straw, or other rubbish; and afterwards, by digging and raking them in the same manner of preparing ground for lettuce seed…”
Clear the field
“There are two distinct and separate methods of preparing the tobacco ground: the one is applicable to the preparation of new and uncultivated lands, such are in a state of nature, and require to be cleared of the heavy timber and other productions with which Providence has stocked them; and the other method is designed to meliorate and revive lands of good foundation, which have been heretofore cultivated, and, in some measure, exhausted by the calls of agriculture and evaporation…”
Till the soil and form hills
When this proces has cleared the land of its various natural incumbrances (to attain which end is very expensive and laborious), the next part of the process is that of the hoe; for the plough is an implement which is rarely used in new lands when they are either designed for tobacco or meadow… The use of this [narrow or hilling] hoe is to break up the ground and throw it into shape; which is done by chopping the clods until they are sufficiently fine, and then drawing the earth round the foot until it forms a heap round the projected leg of the labourer like a mole hill, and nearly as high as the knee; he then draws out his foot, flattens the top of the hil by a dab with the flat part of the hoe, and advances forward to the next hill in the same manner, until the whole piece of ground is prepared. The centre of these hills are in this manner guessed by the eye; and in most instances they approach near to lines of four feet one way, and three feet the other…”
Transplant into hills
“The term, season for planting, signifies a shower of rain of sufficient quantity to wet the earth to a degree of moisture which may render it safe to draw the young plants from the plant bed, and transplant them into the hills which are prepared for them in the field… these seasons generally commence in April, and terminate with what is termed thelong season in May; which (to make use of an Irishism) very frequently happens in June.. [the plants] are supposed to be equal to meet the imposition of this task when the leaves are about the size of a dollar; but this is more generally the minor magnitude of the leaves; and some will be of course about three or four times that medium dimension…”
Hoe the weeds
“The operation of hoeing comprehends two distinct functions, viz. that of hilling, and that of weeding… he who would have a good crop of tobacco, or or maize, must not be sparing of his labour, but must keep the ground constantly stirring during the whole growth of the crop. And it is a rare instance to see the plough introduced as an assistant…”
Topping & Suckering
“This operation [topping], simply, is that of pinching off with the thumb nail the leading stem or sprout of the plant, which would, if left alone, run up to flower and seed; but which, from the more substantial formation of the leaf by the help of the nutritive juices, which are thereby afforded to the lower parts of the plant… is rendered more weighty, thick, and fit for market… the custom is to top the plant to nine, seven, or five leaves, as the quality of the soil may seem most likely to bear… The sucker is a superflous sprout which is wont to make its appearance and shoot forth from the stem or stalk, near the junction of the leaves with the stem, and about the root of the plant; and if these suckers are permitted to grow, they injure the marketable quality of the tobacco by compelling a division of its nutriment… The planter is therefore careful to destroy these intruders with the thumb nail, as in the act of topping, and this process is termed suckering…”
How to know if the crop is ripe
“I find it difficult to give to strangers a full idea of the ripening of the leaf: it is a point on which I would not trust my own experience without consulting some able crop-master in the neighbourhood… So far as I am able to convey an idea, which I find it easier to understand than to express, I should judge the ripening of the leaf by its thickening sufficiently; by the change of its colour to a more yellowish green; by a certain mellow appearance, and protrusion of the web of the leaf… and by such other appearances as I might conceive to indicate an ultimate suspension of the vegetative functions.”
Cutting and hanging
“… with a strong sharp knife, proceed along the respective rows of the field to select such plants as appear to be ripe… those which are cut are sliced off near to the ground… the plants are then laid down upon the hill where they grew, with the points of the leaves projecting all the same way, as nearly as possible, so that when the sun has had sufficient effect to render them pliable, they may more easily and uniformly be gathered… Timber is then split in the manner of laths, into pieces of four feet in length, and about an inch and a half in diameter. These are termed the tobacco sticks; and their use is to hang the tobacco upon… When the plant has remained long enough exposed to the sun, or open air, after cutting, to become sufficiently pliant to bear handling and removal with conveniency, it must be removed to the tobacco house…the next stage of the process is that termed hangingthe tobacco. This is done by hanging the plants in rows upon the tobacco sticks with the points down, letting them rest upon the stick by the stem of the lowest leaf, or by the split which is made in the stem…”
“It is only at this stage (that is, in a condition which will bear handling and stripping, without either being so dry as to break and crumble, or so damp as to endanger a future rotting of the leaf) that it is for the first time… ready for farther process. This condition can only be distinguished by diligent attention, and frequent handling… The method of trying it corresponds with that by which the quality of the commodity is examined: it must be stretched gently over the ends of the fingers and knuckles, and if it is in goodcase, i.e. plight, or condition, it will discover an elastic capacity, stretching like leather, glowing with a kind of moist gloss, pearled with a kind of gummy powder; yet neither dry enough to break, nor sweaty enough to ferment.”
“The sticks, containing the tobacco which may be sufficiently cured, are then taken down and drawn out of the plants. These are then taken one by one respectively, and the leaves being stripped from the stalk of the plant, are rolled round the butts or thick ends of the leaf, with one of the smallest leaves as a bandage, and thus made up into little bundles fit for laying into the cask for final packing.”
In 1771, everyone was required by law to take their tobacco to the nearest tobacco warehouse to be inspected by government appointed inspectors. The reason the government required tobacco to be inspected was to make sure that only high quality Virginia tobacco was shipped to Europe, so the price for it would stay high. In spite of this fact, the price of tobacco was falling in the early 1770s. It was only worth 2.5 to 3 pence per pound in the early 1770s, while it had been worth as much as 5 pence per pound in the 1760s. Because wheat was fetching a high price, as much as 4s6d (4 shillings, 6 pence), in the early 1770s and required much less labor to grow, many farmers were beginning to grow more wheat and less tobacco for their cash crop.
The farm family grows winter wheat and rye as secondary cash crops, tobacco being the main cash crop. The wheat and rye are sown in September, after most of the other crops are harvested. They usually sprout before the first frost and then lay dormant throughout the winter. As soon as spring arrives, the wheat and rye shoot up, forming heads of grain by May, and then they are ready to harvest in the early summer.
The wheat and rye are cut with a sickle, a hand-held tool with a curved blade. The cut grain is gathered and tied into thick bundles called sheaves, then stacked in shocks in the field. The shocks remain in the field until the grain has dried out.
The wheat and rye are threshed in the fall to separate the grain from the stalk and then traded, sold or taken to the mill to be ground into flour for the family’s use. The nearest grist mill in 1771 is Tolston’s on Difficult Run. While the family rely on corn as their main staple grain, the farm wife occasionally uses wheat flour to make pastes (crusts) for pies, dumplings and yeast bread using a bread starter made from hops grown in the kitchen garden.
The heirloom variety of wheat grown on the Farm is called Red May wheat.
While the farm family’s diet is supplemented with cured pork, fish from the nearby Potomac river and vegetables from the kitchen garden, corn is their primary food staple. In the spring, the corn is planted in hills much like the tobacco. Squash and melons are planted at the same time around the base of each hill. The broad-leaved squash and melon vines will grow along the ground, shading out and preventing unwanted weeds from growing while providing additional food for the family. Once the corn has grown a couple of feet tall, pole beans are planted at the top of each hill. The corn stalks provide a perfect pole for the bean stalks to climb.
In the fall, the family lets the corn dry out on the ear and then shells the dry kernels into a barrel. The dried kernels will keep for a long time. When the family needs corn flour for making Johnny cakes, corn mush and corn puddings, they take some of the dried corn to the mill to be ground. The miller takes a portion of the corn as payment. The family can also pound their dried corn in their hominy block, a large mortar and pestle made of a hollowed out log. Hominy is the inside of a corn kernel and it puffs up when boiled. The family can eat plain boiled hominy with butter and salt, or they can add hominy to stews.
Because the corn is the family’s staple food, they do not use very much of it to feed their animals. Most of the livestock forage for their own food. Corn is given to the hogs for a few months before they are butchered to fatten them and give their meat a better taste. Corn fodder, the leaves stripped off the corn stalks and dried, is given to the horse and cattle in the winter.
The variety of corn grown on the Farm is called White Dent corn.
The kitchen garden is where the farm family grows most of their vegetables and their herbs. While the field crops are tended to by the menfolk, the kitchen garden is primarily the responsibility of the farm wife and her daughters. Cool weather crops such as broad beans, cabbages, kale, lettuce, mustard greens, onions, parsnips, peas, radishes, spinach and turnips are planted in the spring and again in the fall. Summer crops such as pole beans, beets, carrots, cucumbers, okra, potatoes, muskmelons and watermelons are grown in the hotter months, and squash and pumpkins are planted in the summer for fall harvesting. Perennial herbs are well established in the corners of the garden. Winter savory, thyme, chives, sage and rosemary are among the herbs used to add flavor to the family’s foods while herbs like comfrey, elecampane, garlic, pennyroyal and valerian make up the family’s “medicine cabinet.”
Early spring greens, both cultivated and wild satisfy the family’s craving for something fresh after months of pickled and salted foods. In the summer, wild berries join crisp fresh vegetables on the table. Throughout the summer and into the fall, the farm wife works hard to preserve vegetables for the winter. Almost any vegetable can be pickled in a vinegar or salt brine with spices. Some vegetables, like peas and beans are easily preserved by drying them, while root crops like carrots, beets and parsnips will last for months buried in damp sand in the cellar. Pumpkins, squash and onions will wait patiently until they are needed if kept in a clean, dry place such as the loft in the farm house.
The farm family saves most of their own seed from year to year for planting the field crops and the vegetable in the garden. However, the stores in Alexandria do carry seed and one can always trade with neighbors.
An apple orchard near the farm house provides the family with cider to drink year round and with apple cider vinegar for pickling. The apples are harvested in late August and early September and for a while, the family enjoys fresh apples, fried apples, apple pies, dumplings and fritters. Some apples are sliced and dried for winter. Then the majority of the harvest is taken to a cider mill to be pressed because apples are best preserved in the form of cider.
The heirloom varieties of apples grown on the Farm are Redstreak, Hewes Crab and Newton Pippin.
Greene, Wesley. Research done by Colonial Williamsburg’s Garden Historian. Articles can be found at http://www.history.org/history/cwland/resrch1.cfm.
Herndon, G. Melvin. William Tatham and the Culture of Tobacco.
Originally published in London, 1800. Reprinted Coral Gables, FL: University of Miami Press, 1969.
Randolph, John. A Treatise on Gardening.
Originally printed in Williamsburg in 1793. Reprinted Richmond, VA: Appeals Press, Inc., 1924.
Randolph, Mary. The Virginia Housewife.
Originally published in 1824. Reprinted Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1984.
Simmons, Amelia. American Cookery.
Originally published in Hartford, Conn. in 1796. Reprinted New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1984.
Weaver, William Woys. Heirloom Vegetable Gardening; A Master Gardener’s Guide to Planting, Seed Saving, and Cultural History.
New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1997.