Wheat in Virginia

in 2009, wheat production in Virginia was concentrated on the Coastal Plain, especially the Northern Neck and Eastern Shore
in 2009, wheat production in Virginia was concentrated on the Coastal Plain, especially the Northern Neck and Eastern Shore
Source: USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service, Corn and Soybean Distribution Maps

The English colonists introduced wheat into Virginia in the 1600's. The grain helped the colonists become self-sufficient in food production by the 1630's. By 1739, Virginia was exporting large amounts of wheat to the West Indies.1

In the later half of the 1700's, Virginia farmers (particularly George Washington) diversified away from tobacco and started growing more wheat. Unlike tobacco, wheat exports did not require the same financial entanglements with English merchants, who might sell the tobacco at a price considered to be too low by the planters in Virginia.

George Washington shifted away from tobacco and chose to grow wheat and other grains on his Northern Virginia farms around Mount Vernon, ultimately building a mill on Dogue Creek and then a distillery
George Washington shifted away from tobacco and chose to grow wheat and other grains on his Northern Virginia farms around Mount Vernon, ultimately building a mill on Dogue Creek and then a distillery
Source: Some Old Historic Landmarks of Virginia and Maryland, Washington's Mill at Epsewasson, Head of Dogue Bay (p.77)

Most of Virginia's "internal improvements" (turnpikes, canals, and railroads) were designed to connect the wheat-growing and tobacco-growing regions in the Piedmont/Shenandoah Valley with ports on the Atlantic seaboard. By the 1850's, the Shenandoah Valley was a major wheat-growing area. Alexandria, Richmond and Norfolk developed into major wheat exporting ports.

in 1859, just before the Civil War, the Piedmont and even portions of Tidewater were still major wheat-growing regions in Virginia
in 1859, just before the Civil War, the Piedmont and even portions of Tidewater were still major wheat-growing regions in Virginia
Source: Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States, Wheat, 1859 (Plate 143q, digitized by University of Richmond)

by 1889, most wheat in Virginia was grown west of the Blue Ridge
by 1889, most wheat in Virginia was grown west of the Blue Ridge
Source: Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States, Wheat, 1859 (Plate 143q, digitized by University of Richmond)

Today, wheat production in Virginia is concentrated in the Northern Neck. Wheat is a domesticated grass. In Virginia, most wheat fields in Virginia today are soft red winter wheat. Seeds are planted in the Fall, in September-November. After germination and a short period of growth, the wheat plants go dormant. They serve as a cover crop to reduce erosion and retain moisture during the winter. In the Spring, the wheat is ploughed under so another crop (usually corn or soybeans) can be planted in the field, but in some counties the wheat allowed to mature and harvested in June-July.2

spelt wheat, growing at Frontier Culture Museum in Staunton
"spelt" wheat, growing at Frontier Culture Museum in Staunton

The Eastern Virginia Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Warsaw (Richmond County) provides technical assistance on small grain field research, including how to maximize production from no-till fields (where soil is not ploughed, minimizing labor/energy costs and retaining soil moisture).

wheat field (Westmoreland County)
wheat field (Richmond County)

Wheat grains are ground into flour before cooking/baking into food. For 400 years, wheat seeds (mostly starch, but with gluten-rich proteins) have been processed at mills all across Virginia for making bread and other baked goods. Today, stone millwheels are primarily decorative items, but a few still-operating mills require millers to "keep their nose to the grindstone" to check the quality of the flour.

Mills were centers of community as well as industrial operations. Small mills ground wheat and other grains for local farmers, who often took home the flour from their own crop (minus the portion of "toll" paid to the miller). Merchant mills paid cash for wheat, then sold the flour separately.

The Chapman/Beverly Mill in Thoroughfare Gap (on the border of Prince William and Fauquier counties) was expanded to 7 stories in 1758 to become one of the tallest stone structures in the United States. The expansion of the mill, almost 100 years after it was originally built, occurred after the Manassas Gap Railroad connected the mill directly to the port of Alexandria in 1752.

Chapmans Mill, 1931
Chapmans Mill, 1931
Source: National Park Service

Links

the Gallego Mill in Richmond
the Gallego Mill in Richmond
Source: University of North Carolina, The Great South; A Record of Journeys in Louisiana, Texas, the Indian Territory, Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland (1875)

References

1. Harold B. Gill, Jr., "Wheat Culture in Colonial Virginia," Agricultural History, Vol.52, No.3 (Jul., 1978), p.381
2. "Usual Planting and Harvesting Dates for U.S. Field Crops," US Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics Service, December 1997, http://www.nass.usda.gov/Publications/Usual_Planting_and_Harvesting_Dates/uph97.pdf (last checked October 26, 2013)

the Gallego and Haxall mills in Richmond exported flour to South America, but were destroyed when Richmond burned at the end of the Civil War
the Gallegos and Haxall mills in Richmond exported flour to South America, but were destroyed when Richmond burned at the end of the Civil War
Source: Library of Congress, Richmond, Va. View on James River and Kanawha Canal near the Haxall Flour Mills; ruins of the Gallego Mills beyond


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