Fertile Ground: Virginia’s Agricultural Traditions
Richmond Times-Dispatch Virginia Folklife
Craft Demonstration Area
For most of its history, Virginia was a predominantly rural state, and agriculture remains vitally important to the Commonwealth today. The Folklife Area will feature many of the essential crops and food ways of Virginia, focusing on various aspects and uses of such food products as apples, corn, maple sugar, peanuts, hams, and others. Festival visitors will be able to witness firsthand the work and processes behind many of the foods that have graced Virginia tables for generations, and interact with many of today’s masters of these working traditions. The culture of food has always been considered an important aspect of Folklife. Much like music or crafts, food ways embody a connection to place, community, and the past. Folklife isn't learned from an instructional video; it's learned from the hands of masters and passed down from generation to generation. These farmers, growers, cooks, and shuckers will showcase some of Virginia’s finest agricultural traditions.
Folklife Area is open from 12 to 6 on Saturday and Sunday, and will hold scheduled focused demonstrations.
Virginia Folklife Area Craft Demonstration Schedule:
Saturday, October 13:
Sunday, October 14:
Jay Eagle of Eagle’s Sugar Camp – Maple Syrup
Doe Hill, VA
Beautiful Highland County, known as the “Switzerland of Virginia,” is the southernmost site in the United States for the production of maple syrup, where “Sugar Camps” have traditionally been small-scale, family-run operations. The syrup-making process begins with the tapping of maple trees to collect the clear, almost flavorless sap. Collected in buckets or through plastic tubing, the sap is boiled in kettles, pans, or evaporators until a barrel is finally reduced to a gallon of pure maple syrup. It is rugged work, conducted in often brutal winter conditions. The Eagle family of Doe Hill, Virginia, has been producing maple syrup from their sugar camp for more than six generations, using both traditional and more modern methods—from open pan wood-fired evaporators to the latest advanced computerized oil-fired models. Jay Eagle learned the craft from his grandfather, who continued to tap the family’s maple trees well into his nineties. Jay has apprenticed his own grandson, Tyler Eagle, who is learning to carry on the maple-sugaring tradition.
Before the last half of the twentieth century, a wide variety of apples were grown regionally, with apple types grown according to the varying soil, weather, and habitat conditions across the United States. The advent of a national market, driven by the development and consolidation of supermarket chains, has reduced the number of available apple varieties to a dozen or so that keep well, respond well to extensive spray programs, and have an attractive and uniform outer skin. Much of the flavor that our ancestors cherished in apples has been sacrificed. The old regional varieties have become difficult, if not impossible, to find—and some have disappeared entirely. Clyde Jenkins grew up up in one of the old Homesteads in the Shenandoah Mountains in Page County. He is an expert apple grower, dedicated to finding the most richly flavored fruits available that will grow well in central and western Virginia. One of his specialties is grafting, which describes any of a number of techniques in which a section of a stem with leaf buds is inserted into the stock of a tree. Grafting is useful for more than reproduction of an original cultivar. It is also used to repair injured fruit trees or for combining an established tree with one or more different cultivars. The Greeks, Etruscans, and Romans all practiced grafting, and it remains a valuable and widely-used horticultural method.
Thomas Jefferson experimented with eighteen or more varieties of apples at Monticello, only a few miles from the orchard faithfully tended by the Shelton family in North Garden, Virginia. The most important use of apples in Colonial Virginia was cider, valued not so much for drinking fresh from the press as for fermenting into a wholesome beverage that could be stored and consumed year-round. “Hard” cider provided nutrients generally lacking from the American diet in the many years before refrigeration and mass transit filled our markets. The Shelton’s orchard is dedicated to exploring the varieties of apple that can thrive in Albemarle County, growing the dozen or so of those cultivars that still exist as well as hundreds of other old-fashioned varieties. The Shelton family established Vintage Virginia Apples in 2000, and it has since grown to encompass a variety of tree fruits that are becoming increasingly rare. They have recently moved into the production of traditional hard cider with Albemarle Ciderworks, which has received rave reviews across the country.
Known as “Fried Apple Pies,” “Dried Apple Pies,” or even “Fried Dried Apple Pies,” these locally made treats seem to have a ubiquitous presence throughout Southwest Virginia, appearing on the counters and shelves of country stores, gas stations, and community festivals. The defining characteristic of the pie is its intense flavor, accomplished through the use of dried apples, which are rehydrated through a long simmering process with brown sugar. While each community likely stakes a claim for one of their local pie makers, it is our experience that Frances Davis of Rocky Mount, Virginia takes the title as the ultimate “Fried Apple Pie Lady,” and her delicious fried pies have been featured at festivals around the state, including the National Folk Festival and the Blue Ridge Folklife Festival at Ferrum College. Frances was one of six children born to a share-cropping family. She learned to cook from her mother, and by the age of twelve was responsible for cooking for her entire family and caring for the other children too young to go to the fields. “I had to get up each morning around four, get the fire started to heat the house, and then be sure to have three full meals ready when the grownups came in from the field. Honestly, I didn’t really have a life as a child, because I had a big responsibility.” This responsibility led Frances to become one of the most respected and creative home chefs in the region. “You had to be very resourceful,” she told us; “you had to learn to work with what you had.”
The Chesapeake Bay’s brackish waters once made its oyster population among the most plentiful in the nation, and oyster harvesting was long a booming industry throughout the communities of the Bay. During the 1960s, decades of disease, pollution, and habitat destruction culminated in a significant drop in the oyster population. With fewer oysters, the health of the Bay declined because oysters feed on sediment and algae, which, left unchecked, cloud the water and kill underwater grasses essential to maintaining water quality. The Chesapeake Bay’s oyster population has experienced a recent resurgence as a result of innovative techniques used by watermen who have moved from the traditional planting of shells on the Bay’s floor to aqua-farming using cages, racks, and floats. Dudley Biddlecomb of Fairport, located on Virginia’s Northern Neck, is among those leading the charge toward this new form of aquaculture. The Biddlecomb family’s state lease dates back to the 1920s. Dudley has been in the oyster business all his life, and still lives adjacent to his family’s oyster beds on the farm where he was born, and where his grandfather dredged oysters in the late 1800s. Dudley has experimented with a variety of methods for planting oysters and is an expert on the diverse factors that affect their health and growth. He has become a major advocate and educator of these new oystering techniques, and frequently shares his knowledge at the Reedville Fishermen’s Museum.
While many associate the Eastern Shore with the work of the watermen, it is in fact a predominantly agricultural region. Bill Savage grew up on his family’s farm near Painter, Virginia, in Accomack County, where the family grew a great variety of vegetables for shipping throughout the mid-Atlantic region. Bill purchased a bushel of heirloom “Indian corn”, a type grown by local farmers for more than 165 years, from a man whose grandfather had been growing it on the Eastern Shore of Virginia since 1870. Bill harvests the corn in the late autumn, dries it in an open air corn crib, shells it with a vintage corn sheller, and bags and stores it in a grain house. The corn is then stone-ground into cornmeal. Bill and his father grind the corn using traditional methods to make a unique, sweet-smelling cornmeal, which they sell through their recently-established family business, Pungo Creek Mills.
For communities on Virginia’s Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula, the oyster fishery was perhaps the largest and most influential industry from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s. Men and women employed by the industry worked a variety of jobs, from boat cook, captain, and crew to shore-based scow gangs and shuckers. Shucking, in particular, provided many employment opportunities for African Americans throughout the Chesapeake Region. Sisters Deborah Pratt and Clementine Macon, whose parents met while working in one of the many small oyster houses that dotted the Northern Neck coastline, are two of the top shuckers in the world, capable of deftly opening two dozen oysters in less than three minutes. Though the oyster industry has experienced a dramatic decline since the mid-1990s, the art of shucking has continued as a highly competitive sport. Deborah and Clementine have each won the prestigious Virginia State Championships held every year in Urbanna, and the National Oyster Shucking Championships in St. Mary’s City, Maryland, which awarded them the right to compete in the World Shucking Championships. Deborah is known on the oyster shucking circuit for shucking a particularly “pretty oyster.” The sisters face off in their third Richmond Folk Festival oyster-shucking contest. Clementine defeated Deborah in 2010, while Deborah took the prize in 2011. Who will win in 2012? It’s time to “settle the score in the 804!”
There is probably no traditional foodway more closely associated with Virginia than the curing of country ham. The town of Smithfield, in particular, has been a prominent site for ham curing for more than 200 years. Unlike the more common wet-cured ham, which is soaked in brine or injected with a salt solution, country ham is dry-cured and aged over a much longer period. The curing of fresh pork hams takes nine months, usually beginning in November. The hams are salted, sugared, and peppered at different intervals throughout the process. In 1952, Tommy Darden’s father founded Darden’s Farm and Darden’s Country Store, located about seven miles south of Smithfield in Isle of Wight County. Tommy and Dee Dee now own and operate the farm, where they cure hams the old fashioned way. They salt fresh hams for a day and half per pound, smoke them over hickory and apple wood, coat the hams with pepper and borax to deter bugs (which is washed off before they are sold), and hang them in a shed with no temperature or humidity controls. “The older they get, the redder they get, the saltier they taste,” Tommy explains. Unlike factory-cured hams that hang in artificially heated and cooled rooms, the Darden’s hams experiencing the true summer sweats of old fashioned smokehouses. In addition to slow-aging long-cut country hams every year, the Dardens farm 600 acres of peanuts, soybeans, cotton, and corn, and raise beef cattle.
Gail Hobbs-Page was given her first pair of goats when she was a child growing up on a North Carolina farm. “I loved their milk, and I loved the idea that I could make many things from their milk,” Gail remembers. “Once I started tending to the goats, they became very precious to me because they nourish us. I guess they kind of got into my blood.” Today, Gail and her husband own Caromont Farm in Esmont, tucked away in the rolling hills of the Piedmont, where Gail produces farmstead, artisan cheeses from her herd of more than fifty Nubian, La Mancha, and Alpine goats. She speaks passionately about the potential for Virginia’s terroir—a wine-making term meaning the expression of a place through the flavor of the produce grown in that area. While cheese making has been an important method of cold storage since Virginia’s colonial period, the making of artisan cheeses has only recently been revived in Virginia, with Gail leading the way.
Franklin County has long been known for the production and sale of “moonshine,” or homemade corn liquor. Distilling—the technique of boiling a fermented “mash” and then cooling the alcohol-laden steam back into a liquid—has been practiced for thousands of years around the world. By 1620, just thirteen years after the settlement of Jamestown, Virginia colonists were distilling corn on the James River. The English, Germans, and Scots-Irish who settled the western Virginia backcountry in the 1700s all brought with them traditions of turning fruit into brandy and grains into whiskey. The difference between a legal distiller and a moonshiner is basic: the moonshiner chooses not to license his distilling operation or pay taxes on his whiskey. In the Virginia Blue Ridge, the illegal distiller came to be called a “moonshiner” or a “bootlegger.” Though once a booming industry, peaking during the era of prohibition, moonshining has more recently been shrinking in the Virginia Blue Ridge. While the life of the moonshiner is often romanticized in popular culture, the reality of the illegal whiskey trade is far from pleasant. The work has always involved hard manual labor, and penalties for operating a moonshine still can include jail time and the loss of vehicles and real estate. Jimmy Boyd, of Franklin County, Virginia, is a former locally acclaimed moonshiner as well a fine clawhammer banjo player and co-founder of the Dry Hill Draggers, one of the most beloved old time bands in Virginia.
Appearing as early as 848 B.C., peanuts were first brought to North America by enslaved Africans. The first commercial peanut crop in Virginia was grown in Sussex County (near what is now Waverly) in the early- to mid- 1840s. The peanut was not a significant agricultural crop until the early 1900s when the boll weevil destroyed the South’s cotton crop. Following the suggestion of prominent African American scientist Dr. George Washington Carver, peanuts replaced cotton’s position in the South as a money crop. Peanuts flower above ground, but fruit below ground, taking four to five months to develop from planting to harvesting. The peanut grown by Virginia peanut farmers is primarily the Virginia type, distinguished by its large oval shape and reddish brown skin. Once they are ready for harvesting, the peanuts are dug up, dried, and shelled, or processed at buying stations. Today peanuts are a multimillion dollar industry in Virginia and an important crop in the southeastern states, farmed only in the eight counties of Virginia’s Western Tidewater. A recent farm bill altering the way peanuts are sold to manufacturers has diminished the number of planted acres of peanuts from around 75,000 to under 20,000, but it remains a thriving industry, with about 175 peanut farmers, more than 16,000 planted acres, and 64 million pounds produced each year. Unlike many other forms of agriculture, peanut farming remains almost exclusively the work of small, family farms. Now in its year, the Virginia Peanut Growers Association works to support the promotion of 65th Virginia’s peanut industry and the best interests of Virginia’s peanut growers.