Six vacation destinations to learn about Virginia agriculture
With summer vacation travel upon us, many people are looking for destinations that offer beautiful scenery, colorful waterslides, quaint cafes and an opportunity to work on the tan-line.
Some, however, are also interested in combining a few days away from work with an educational component. Virginia offers numerous destinations where travelers can learn more about the fascinating history of agriculture in Virginia. Each offers a glimpse into our past along with examples of how farming became the leading industry in Virginia (agriculture is the largest private industry in the state with an economic impact of $52 billion annually).
Each of the following destinations promises a learning experience travelers will likely not forget and their websites list many special events for all ages. This is just a sampling of the agritourism opportunities available around Virginia.
George Washington was, of course, the first President of the United States and is widely-known as one of the primary founding fathers of our great nation. Yet Washington thought of himself first as a farmer. While his initial interest in agriculture was driven by his own need to improve Mount Vernon, in later years Washington realized his leadership and experimentation could assist all American farmers.
Initially growing tobacco as his cash crop, Washington soon realized that tobacco alone was not economically sustainable and he switched to grains, particularly wheat, as a cash crop in the 1760s. It was here at Mount Vernon that Washington read the latest reports on agriculture and implemented new husbandry methods using a variety of techniques and crop rotation plans.
Visitors certainly want to visit the historic mansion and walk around the beautiful gardens, but equally interesting is the four-acre Pioneer Farm, whose highlights include a replica of Washington’s 16-sided treading barn, a reconstructed slave cabin, and a distillery and gristmill. Washington had a large stone gristmill built in 1770 to increase his production of flour and cornmeal which he originally intended to be exported to the West Indies, England and Europe. With the gristmill up and running, his Scottish farm manager, James Anderson, encouraged Washington to build a distillery next to it. An excellent example of farm diversification in early Virginia, the distillery produced nearly 11,000 gallons of rye whiskey and other products by 1799, making it one of the most successful operations of its kind in America.
New residents at the farm are two young Red Devon cows. Washington’s original dairy herd was comprised of Red Devons, and these calves arrived at the site in the fall of 2016 from their birth place on a Virginia farm.
After spending a day at this historic site, visitors will understand why Washington once said “I had rather be on my farm than be emperor of the world.” Website: www.mountvernon.org. Hours 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Open every day all year long.
Cyrus McCormick Farm
Receiving 4.5 stars out of a possible 5 at TripAdvisor.com, this historic 620-acre farm in the scenic Shenandoah Valley highlights the accomplishments of the McCormick family. Located near Lexington and adjacent to I-81, the Cyrus McCormick Farm is known as the birthplace of the mechanical reaper, the predecessor to the modern combine harvester. It was here in the farm blacksmith shop that McCormick developed a machine that would truly change American agriculture. Prior to inventing the reaper, farmers could only harvest half an acre of grain a day; after the reaper invention, farmers could harvest 12 acres a day using less manual labor. It was an immediate success because of its ingenuity and efficiency. Field demonstrations at the farm which straddles the Augusta/Rockbridge County line attracted sightseers from all across North America. The family business grew quickly and moved to Chicago, where it would evolve over a period of years, ultimately becoming the International Harvester Company.
One of the most attractive features on the farm is a grist mill built by Cyrus McCormick’s grandfather. This is one of those scenic location in Virginia’s rural countryside that require a picnic lunch and a blanket to immerse yourself in the history of the place. A free, self-guided tour offers plenty of signage explaining what you are looking at. A button on top of the audio box at the museum entrance offers a full audio explanation of the items.
After getting their fill of historical information, visitors may wander over to the nature trail, a mile-long walk demonstrating various plants, trees and healthy farming practices. Virginia Tech Agricultural Research Extension Center maintains this historical gem and keeps it open to the public. Open daily 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.Address: 128 McCormick’s Farm Circle, Raphine, VA 24472
This lovely and historic destination is the oldest active plantation in Virginia and is the oldest family-owned business in North America. Shirley Planation dates back to 1614 with farming operations starting in 1638 when the land was cultivated for growing tobacco to be shipped to England. Situated on a picturesque bluff above the banks of the James River near Charles City, Virginia, this grand old plantation represents some of the most fascinating history about life in early Virginia agriculture.
The construction of the present mansion and outbuildings began circa 1723. The mansion is called the Great House and was completed in 1738. The house has been occupied by the Hill / Carter family since that time and has housed eight generations. It was at Shirley that Anne Hill Carter was born, and on June 18, 1793 married Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee in the mansion’s parlor. The couple would be the parents of the famous Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
Encompassing more than 700 riverfront acres, Shirley Plantation offers stunning views of highly productive cropland. Indeed, the world record for corn yield was set near here in 2015. The guided tour of the Great House takes approximately 35 – 40 minutes. The remainder of the tour is self-guided and at a casual pace takes about 30 minutes. Enjoying a picnic lunch and relaxing in the shade of some very old trees adjacent to the Great House provides an immersive experience. Open Daily: 9:30 a.m. – 4 p.m. through November 15, 2017. Website:www.shirleyplantation.com. The adjacent Upper Shirley Vineyard includes a winery and full-service vineyard.
Frontier Culture Museum
This well-developed site sits alongside I-81 in Staunton and displays accurate examples of the diverse cultures that settled the Shenandoah Valley and Colonial America. The Frontier Culture Museum is a living history museum that vividly tells the story of people who migrated from the Old World to America and the life they created in the Western Wilderness.
The Museum is made up of original or reproduced examples of American farms from the 1740s, 1820s and 1850s eras, as well as farms settled by immigrants from Igbo West Africa, England, Germany, and Ireland, including an Irish Forge. These early Virginians eventually became Americans and contributed to the success of the colonies and the United States.
Hours are 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. seven days a week through November 30, www.frontiermuseum.org..
Monticello’s South Orchard
At historic Monticello in Charlottesville, Thomas Jefferson planted more than 1,000 fruit trees in his South Orchard between 1769 and 1814. This orchard formed a horseshoe-shape around two vineyards and was organized into a grid pattern. It was in this magnificent spot of rich earth that Jefferson planted at least eighteen varieties of apple, thirty-eight varieties of peach, along with numerous cherry, pear, plum, nectarine, almond and apricot trees. The earliest plantings, before 1780, reflect the experimental orchard of a young man eager to import Mediterranean culture to Virginia. It included olives, almonds, pomegranates and figs. However, the mature plantings after 1810 included species and varieties that were being tested to endure the hot, humid summers and cold, rainy winters of central Virginia. These included late-season peaches or Virginia cider apples such as Jefferson’s favorite, the Spitzenburg apple.
On August 5 and 19, 2017, (9:30 – 11:30 a.m.) Gabriele Rausse (Director of Gardens and Grounds at Monticello) and staff will entertain visitors to the South Orchard with the fruits of summer: early apples, peaches, figs, grapes, nectarines, blackberries and others. Short talks on the history of fruit growing in Virginia will highlight this informal two-hour feast. Website: www.monticello.org; Monticello is open every day of the year, including Sundays, except Christmas. To see the hours for a particular day, click on a date in the calendar at the website.
Loudoun Heritage Farm Museum
The Loudoun Heritage Farm Museum is in Sterling, Virginia. The non-profit museum is dedicated to preserving, promoting and bringing to life the rich agricultural history of Loudoun County. A visit to this facility allows visitors to travel through time to meet the 10 generations of Loudoun County residents who built this county and left their mark on the land. Attractions include Ms. Su’s schoolhouse which represents a 1909 one-room schoolhouse. This interactive exhibit highlights how education in Virginia has changed over the last century.
Another highlight is the Claude Moore Children’s Farm which has an intriguing exhibit area for kids. They can milk a life-like cow, collect eggs from the play chickens and ride the Equi-ponies. Reviewers at Tripadvisor.com give the Loudoun Farm Museum 4 out of 5 stars and offer comments such as “very educational with great activities for kids.” The farm museum serves between 17,000 and 18,000 visitors per year. The organization promotes four large annual events for all ages. Website: www.loudounmuseum.com/ Open Tuesday –Saturday from 9:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.; Sunday from 11:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.
Special thanks to Jeff Ishee of “On the Farm” radio for his assistance with this article