In looking at yesteday, you can see some of today

December 12, 2006|by JEFF SEMLER

On a recent visit to Colonial Williamsburg, I realized just how true the saying is "the more things change, the more they remain the same."

I was visiting the Great Hopes Plantation, home to a middling planter, different from what many people know which are the gentry's planters such as Washington and Jefferson. The main difference was the gentry didn't actually do any physical work.

The majority of today's farmers are middling planters - meaning they are middle class and they do the work.

Another similarity to the eighteenth century is today, many farms are being bought by the gentry class. What this means to the future of agriculture remains to be seen.

How have things changed?

Well, horsepower has changed. In the eighteenth century, horsepower was provided by either horses or, more likely, oxen.

Another major change was the colonial farmer was diversified. Today, many farmers are specialized and their horsepower is diesel power.


Another difference is the knowledge we have gleaned from the experience of our forefathers. Because they were clearing the land and planting the crops, many colonial planters did not practice many of what we call conservation steps.

Erosion was not considered because the thinking was that the tree roots and stumps would hold the soil. Of course, in many cases, they didn't.

Building soil with cover crops and crop rotation wasn't always practiced either as they were just going to move on. Remember in colonial days when you moved up, you moved on and, in most cases, it was west.

This is another way the past is revisiting the present. As the farm land in our area continues to shrink, some of our young farm families are moving west.

Just within the last five years, we have had farm families move as close as Bedford County, Pennsylvania, and as far west as southwestern Wisconsin and many of the states in between.

Crops were not all that different. Tobacco, which was the exception, was the main cash crop in the eighteenth century.

Other crops were corn, wheat and hay. Aside from the beasts of burden, other livestock was sheep, cattle, hogs and poultry.

While the livestock were similar, they were also different. Most of the early breeds were multi-purpose. The sheep yielded wool and meat; they were not specialized for fine wool or exceptional meat production. Cattle were the same only they were triple purpose - meat milk and draft.

Poultry was even more diverse. Yes, they raised chickens and turkeys but they also raise guinea fowl and pigeons. The chickens were also dual purpose, being used for both eggs and meat.

Many of the breeds of livestock are still around today although they are what are known as minor breeds.

Many breeds of livestock today are also specialized, for example, for superior milk production.

So what should we do before all our farms have moved west?

Do just what the neighbors of colonial farmers did, buy local.

Will local products cost more?

Maybe, but they will be fresher and tastier. You will also get a bonus in that you will be preserving the character of the area in which you live and, probably, the reason you have chosen to live here.

Jeff Semler is an Extension educator, specializing in agriculture and natural resources, for the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension. He is based in Washington County. He can be reached weekdays by telephone at 301-791-1404, ext. 25, or by e-mail at

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