No matter where the Earth glides on its axis, the days both long and short shine on a years-worth of work on the colonial farm. At Great Hopes plantation, the turning of the seasons brings with it a task suited to the temperatures: plowing, sowing, planting and harvest. Learn the rhythm of the year with Historic Farmer Wayne Randolph.
Harmony Hunter: Hey, welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter. When you begin your visit to Colonial Williamsburg, the first site you’ll come to is Great Hopes Plantation. This working farm is always a hub of activity. Historic Farmer Wayne Randolph joins us now to talk about the cycle of work that carries them through the year. Wayne, thank you for being here today.
Wayne Randolph: You’re welcome.
Harmony: Well, we’re thinking about cyclical farming today and the pace and the rhythm of work throughout the year, but before we unpack that topic tell us just a bit about Great Hopes Plantation for folks that might not be familiar with this working farm that is just a stone’s throw from the Visitor’s Center, where most people’s visit to Colonial Williamsburg begins.
Wayne: And if you walk to the Historic Area you’ll walk right past it and hopefully come in and see what life was somewhat like for those multitudes of Virginians who lived in the countryside. Most Virginians lived on farms or plantations, not in cities so we are kind of a contextual site in that this is what would be outside of Williamsburg. It’s just a small little snippet, it’s just a small sample and we do it as best we can with basically three topics that we interpret there: slavery, farming, and woodworking. Those are the three interpretive units that are at Great Hopes Plantation now.
Harmony: And you have a historical analog. You are basing the operation of this plantation on one that exists in the historic record?
Wayne: No. We are basing it on an amalgam of plantations of a middling size which is an arbitrary definition that when we study households we have arbitrary set of data put people in sort of category, into levels of particularly economic and social life so we are focused at Great Hopes on a middling operation and it really is an amalgam of various bits of information we have from various middling plantations in York County.
Harmony: So it’s as accurate as you can hope to be from history, but it doesn’t represent an individual so much as you say; an amalgam.
Wayne: That’s correct.
Harmony: And just to set the sort of context for discussion of farming I think in modern times farming has become less dependent on seasons and so when we look at the 18th century we see the work of the year really being more driven by, more governed by the seasons. Is that a correct assumption?
Wayne: I’m not sure that’s correct because the seasons effect modern agriculture just as they effected historical agriculture in that plants to a large degree begin growing at a certain time, they need certain resources to grow mature and give us a sellable product or a useable product and livestock as well. So that doesn’t change much except when we genetically engineer things, which is the case today, and that does influence to some degree the seasonality, but often we talk with our modern counter parts and they are having difficulty getting in which means preparing and planting the crop, getting in, just as we are for some weather reason.
Harmony: So let’s talk about those seasons then throughout the year. Let’s just talk about January. What is the farmer doing in the first month of the year? What does winter mean for someone who works in agriculture?
Wayne: Cold temperatures which allow us to do certain things and actually encourage us to be say in the woods, getting timber for fuel or for building materials; catching up on repairs which we’ll be doing all through that cold months, the cooler months, when plants do not really grow. Because we’re so focused on field crops, tobacco, corn, wheat and an assortment of others and even with livestock we don’t see reproduction occurring during those colder months so that allows the labor to shift into picking up activities that are required but that they don’t have time for when the more dominant concern is being addressed which is those plants and animals to an extent so it allows us to mend fences, to dig ditches, to repair roads, to repair tools and equipment that need attention, sometimes even building can happen at that time. We could direct our energy toward those areas that we cannot do when the weather says it’s time to do something else.
Harmony: Then coming into the spring months I assume you’re looking at sewing, planting.
Wayne: Getting prepared, getting prepared and sewing and planting. Exactly right. That is exactly what we do. One of the issues that we have is that the spring time is also a time for rainfall, usually a little bit more rainfall during the spring and that can put in a complication in terms of getting the field prepared and getting that crop in and that happens, as we mentioned, with modern farmers as well. They have a challenge getting in, getting under way with the growing year. We never know when this is going to happen so we’re essentially in a relationship with nature where were against nature because of what we’re doing. We’re trying to get something that’s artificial, it’s not natural. Even a domestic plant, but we have to work with nature so we’re working against and with nature constantly. Every single day we’re looking at a natural force we don’t have any control over with an artificial structure that we are trying to impose on nature, the land and with the weather concerns, so. The spring time is a very important time and its nature in terms of schedule will really set the course for what’s going to happen later in the year.
Harmony: Then you come in to summer when things are growing and you’re going flat out. There’s not quitting time, there’s no vacation when those things start growing and that’s where I think there is some divergence from modern farming in terms of what tools you have to fight pests, what tools you have to fight sort of blights and keep plants healthy and manpower and we can’t forget that during the 18th century a lot of that manpower would have come from slavery.
Wayne: Exactly. Exactly. And the more of it we have available the larger our income will be and so we benefit from scale. The less people produce a saleable product the less product you have the less income you have. The more, the more and so that’s what slavery is all about really is maximizing your labor volume and of course economically that makes sense. Morally, it’s absurd.
Harmony: Give us a sense of the labor required on some of these plants, just with tobacco. I mean daily attention to every leaf.
Wayne: Every leaf. Tobacco, I like to say to our guests, tobacco is grown leaf by leaf. We’re examining or worming, as was said, our tobacco through the whole middle time after its been put into the ground and through the summer when its expanding its leaf and we’re manipulating the way that that grows to produce something that’s not normal at all. It’s very artificial, but that’s where we get our income, is by manipulating the tobacco with this extraordinary attention that it receives so that someone else will want this and pay a lot for it. That’s where we want to be so we’re always trying to perfect our tobacco and that means big heavy perfect leaves and as many of those leaves as we can produce. So yes, it’s very active and that’s just tobacco. We have corn. We may be working with wheat, harvesting our wheat crop. We may be working with cotton or another crop as well. So we’ve run into that this year. We added a grain crop that we’re having some challenges addressing the needs of that grain crop. It’s been said that the crops of tobacco, corn and wheat meshed with the labor demands. I have not found that to be the case.
Harmony: What are you seeing instead?
Wayne: What I see instead is that the needs of small grains which was often associated with larger work forces that may be a clue to it right there. It is needy at a time when our tobacco is very needy as well which is the second two weeks of June so we have to harvest our small grain and secure it so that we can process it later in the year at a time when our tobacco needs attention. The second two weeks of June are very active with worms and weeds and such so just the protection of the crop, which is what cultivation and weeding is, protecting the crop, keeps us quite busy with our hand hoes and our simple cultivating plows all through the summer.
Harmony: Doesn’t that tell us something about the challenge of farming through the centuries even with all the advantages we have today. Although you’re interpreting in person or the operation of an 18th century farm, you still are seeing some of these things are quite difficult.
Wayne: Oh yes, yea. Farming is a real gamble.
Harmony: And of course when we come into fall as we continue through the seasons everybody associates fall with harvest and processing your crops. Is that just as busy a season as summer?
Wayne: It can be. It’s interesting to think about that with the crops that we grow. Our small grains are usually finished by fall. Our corn is maturing and drying up in fall or dry and ready to come out, but it’s not critical. Our harvest of our corn is not critical. It is today because we have deer and geese problems, but historically we didn’t have those problems so we can let our corn stay and our tobacco is in the house, in the tobacco house, curing so we’re manipulating that and we have a little bit more time so we actually find that the fall for us, just our experience at Great Hopes now, has actually tapered off a bit in terms of pressure. The weeds are of not great concern in the fall and things are kind of starting to slow down a bit. Now, we still have things to do. We are busy and we do have processing to do and a lot of that can focus around tobacco, but it’s not…we often harvest here in this latitude a little bit earlier than our neighbors to the north so we don’t really have these kind of classical harvest home sort of things going on here that you would see maybe in New England or perhaps the middle states.
Harmony: As we were preparing to talk today I started to think about animals. Animals on the farm are the work force. They’re the sort of unseen population and I thought “well, animals must have a season too.” But you’ve corrected me and said “maybe not so much as you think.”
Wayne: The impact of animal seasonality is essentially with your meat supply; primarily. That’s the first right out of the gate. That is the first use of animals is for meat so some of that meat needs to be preserved and so that has seasonality to it. That that’s eaten fresh does not have seasonality. Of course there’s replication. Animals in general, with a few exceptions, were not our focus in Virginia. Now there are a couple of exceptions; race horses and fighting cocks. Cock fighting. That’s where really did put the attention and invested a lot, but primarily there are meat sources. So there kind of one element of our diet and surplus can be sold so they’re contributory to the mix of things that make up our domestic economy, particularly in terms of trade, so we are selling an assortment of different things, but some of those things we use and primarily livestock is food and of course transportation and artificial power because we are in that age where our motility is, our mobility is, are our animals only. It’s all we have; or boats perhaps, but primarily if you think of the automobile in your life, well that’s your horse, if you have one, and that’s pretty important, so yea there important to you, but a lot of people are not moving around as much as we move around today anywhere near so it’s not as large a part of our lives and certainly not our economy as are the crop products that this climate allows us to focus on.
Harmony: In Virginia we’ve gone from most people living on small rural farms to today if you farm or if you grow it something maybe a garden its relegated to more of a hobby status; maybe something you putter around with in the spring and summer months. When we look at that difference in society and that difference in time what is the importance of that that you try to share with visitors who visit you at Great Hopes Plantation and understand the slice of life from the 18th century so much so that’s so different from our experience today?
Wayne: We were farmers and planters. That was our main activity. Today we might be office workers, service workers or something else, but during our time almost everyone made a living by producing things from the land. That’s what you did all the time. That was your job; that was your occupation. You were a farmer. Almost all of us were farmers. A few people were not, but very, very few and that was like that through a lot of the 19th century as well. So farming in our lives are just a whole activity of farming, is so obscure, so different than our lives today so that when we have a garden at home we’re touching something that goes incredibly far back and is so much a part of our cultural history; maybe even our psychological history because it seems to me that we have a sense of wanting to be self sufficient in some small kind of way and we also want to nurture. We have a nurturing nature about us and there’s nothing more nurturing, well there is, your own children are the most important, but to nurture plants and animals is also very satisfying and it goes very deep into humanity. I don’t really know where, but…
Harmony: What a wonderful thought. I hope that people will make a point of stopping by Great Hopes because there’s so much to learn above the surface and below the surface and we appreciate you coming by to talk about the work that’s done year round and how we can think about that in terms of our lives today and our ties to the past.
Wayne, thank you for being here today.
Wayne: You’re welcome. My pleasure.