Historic Farming

Ed Shultz

Historic farming retains a connection to field and yield that modern farming does not. Farmer Ed Shultz describes the animals and methods he uses at Great Hopes Plantation.

Learn more: Historic Farming


Harmony Hunter: Hey, welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter. This week we’re picking up again with our series on Historic Trades at Colonial Williamsburg, and this week we’re talking to Ed Shultz who’s an historic farmer. Ed, thanks for joining us today.

Ed Shultz: Thanks, good to be here.

Harmony: Well you’re coming to us fresh out of the fields. What have you been doing?

Ed: Been cultivating with my horse, which is getting the weeds out with the little light plow. And it is hot out there.

Ed: We do a little bit, rest a little bit, rest. It’s all about taking care of the horse and he takes care of me.

Harmony: So what we do in Historic Trades and in historic farming is try to recreate these trades as authentically as possible. You’ve mentioned a plow and a horse. What other measures are you doing in farming and cultivating that are historic 18th-century methods?

Ed: Well we grow tobacco, just as they did. We start with plowing the land with oxen and then we raise hills and we transplant tobacco, which we call pitching. And it’s all done by hand with the same technology, reproduction equipment and implements and the visitor’s there to see it all. It’s the real thing, as we often say.

Harmony: You said equipment and implements. If I’m not familiar with a farm or a tobacco operation what are some of those implements?

Ed: Well the primary is a hoe, believe it or not. A lot was done by hand, a lot. Part of transplanting tobacco or pitching it is first raising a hill with a hoe. It’s not that hard. You get used to it like any other trade. You get used to what you’re doing. We raised 200 hills for tobacco this year, which really isn’t that much compared to the people of the time which was many hundreds more.

So the hoe is a primary implement. The horse draws what’s called a hoe plow, which is a cultivator. We have a proper turning plow that the oxen pull. We also use some woodworking equipment, but not much. But you could say our primary tool is simply a hoe.

Harmony: So tobacco is one of the crops that you grow? What else are you growing?

Ed: We grow lots of corn. Tobacco is of course for money. It gives the people money to buy things. Also corn is for food, but not for animal food. Very little percentage goes to that – that’s for fattening animals for only two weeks. Most of it is for them. It’s ground into cornmeal for corn bread, grits, hominy. Remarkably, people don’t really associate corn with our diet now, but it is. It’s all part of our modern diet. Turn over the box, read the ingredients, turn over the can, read the ingredients. Corn’s in there. It’s the sustenance of our lives and it was theirs as well.

Harmony: And you’re also growing cotton?

Ed: Little bit of cotton, yes. During the war, you couldn’t buy much because you couldn’t sell your tobacco so the economy absolutely collapses for most people. So if you want clothes, you have to grow the fiber. So that requires growing cotton or flax and hemp. We grow flax and cotton every other year.

Harmony: What other crops are you growing?

Ed: Those are the primary. Every other year we’ll also plant wheat, which was another cash crop as well besides tobacco.

Harmony: We’ve covered the crops that you grow, and we started out talking a little bit about the animals that help you do that. Tell me about the oxen that you have and how they help you at Great Hopes Plantation where historic farming is interpreted.

Ed: Their names are Duke and Dan, and they have a lot of heart, which is a term we use for willingness to work. They’re a really good team. They’ve never failed me, and I got them when they were two years old. They’re seven already and time flies and we’ve kind of come up together. They’re incredibly powerful. They’re said to pull one and half times or their combined weight.

Harmony: And so what’s their combined weight?

Ed: 3,000 pounds.

Harmony: My goodness.

Ed: But I think they’ve pulled more, because I can’t weigh these giant logs that we pull or the draft of the plow or a sled full of rocks. So working with them is a lot different than working with horses. They’re just different four-leggeds, very different.

Harmony: They’re a historic breed?

Ed: They’re partially an historic breed. They’re steers. They’re fixed bulls trained to work. That’s what an ox is. So it doesn’t really matter to us, but we want the historic look. But we also wanted an historic size, so half of their lineage is milking Devon which we raise here at Colonial Williamsburg, and the other half is lineback. Those two combinations made a real good-looking pair of oxen that fit what they looked like, and they’re smaller and though they’re smaller, they’re tougher, and they pull harder than teams 500 pounds more.

Harmony: You’ve said that working with the oxen is much different than working with the horses. How are they different?

Ed: Well with oxen, you have to be absolutely the boss. We train and we work draft animals now. We try to understand how their world is. The world of cattle is a world of dominance. Those horns are not for decorations. They physically and mentally dominate each other. So the first rule of working with oxen is,  you got to be the boss, and they’ve got to respect you. You have no connection to them whatsoever; no lines, no bit, nothing. And so it’s imperative that they think you’re in charge because you’re not touching them, you’re not holding them. All you’re doing is using a stick called a goad connected with the yoke and you give commands.

Now with horses, it’s more I would say like collegial. You’re working with, you have direct connection to them, you know. You also have to be boss, but it’s in a different sort of way, in a collegial sort of way, and you work with that horse. You almost have to change your personalities slightly. Let me give an analogy. For the oxen, you’re the sergeant. When you say, “attention,” that private comes to attention right now, no dawdling. With the horse, it’s more like two non-commissioned officers like a sergeant and a corporal, that sort of thing. It’s difficult to describe but it’s felt, and that’s one of the keys to working with drive stock is it becomes intuitive; you just know how to do it. But that comes with time.

Harmony: And that’s important when they’re your tools. You don’t have tractors or…

Ed: No. It’s a living creature, and it needs to be respected as such.

Harmony: Great Hopes is also one of the places where you’ll find hogs, Ossabaw Island Hogs.

Ed: Right, and that is a rare breed from Ossabaw Island in Georgia where they’re feral; they’re wild there. These are also not breeding animals as well. We buy them every year, and by that way we can preserve the animal. So there’s somebody out there with a boar and a sow and they produce pigs. So we buy them. And this is how you can conserve these rare breeds, so they breed more, and more, and more and so they have a purpose and ours have a purpose as well. They end up in the smokehouse.

Harmony: What are some of the main differences between farming in an authentic 18th-century style versus today’s modern farming?

Ed: It’s more direct, I would say. Just a half hour ago, you know, I’m driving the horse and I’m sweating and the horse is sweating, there’s a lot of things going on there as I move the cultivator to cut out the weeds. It’s very direct. Your action produces that crop directly by your hand and your mind and your body. It is similar in modern farming, but there’s somewhat of a distance, primarily through technology. The difference, let’s take wheat. You’re harvesting wheat in the 18th century with a sickle, you’re bent over, and you’re pulling the weed over to put tension, you’re cutting with the sickle. That’s a very direct connection to your well-being. Where in modern farming, you’re in the combine, maybe listening to the radio, harvesting. Now the result is the same. You make money from it, you create wellbeing from it, but there’s more of a distance from it.

Harmony: You and your colleague, Wayne Randolph, are kind of a two-man show out there running the Historic Farming program. Is that what it would have been like in the 18th century, or would you have had maybe several children helping out on a farm or maybe slave help?

Ed: Oh, absolutely. On a middle class plantation it would be the planter, his sons, 16 and above, and slaves both male and female adults, male and female working in the fields. It’s hard to know how much one person could handle, but Mr. Jefferson says that its 10 acres of corn, 10 acres of wheat and three acres of tobacco, ok? Well, maybe. You know, it’s hard to say. It’s a multiplier. You could just say 20 – 20 acres of some kind of combination of those three times how much labor. That’s the planter, his sons, and the slaves. So that’s your multiplier.

Harmony: We hear all the time now, especially since discussion about nutrition and health is so prevalent in the media, that so many people are disassociated from where food comes from and farming and how it’s grown. I wonder if you see that when visitors come to Great Hopes Plantation and they see Historic Farming, are they surprised to see the practice of farming?

Ed: Absolutely. A very common thing that people say, “Is this real, are you really doing this?” “Yes.” I mean its right there in front of them, but there’s a detachment there where, “You couldn’t really be doing this.” “Yes, we’re just like the blacksmith is striking the metal with a hammer we really are growing this.”

The distance that people are from food today is dramatic. Over the 22 years I’ve been doing this Historic Farming in many different centuries at different places I’ve seen it grow and grow further. I’ve thought a lot about this. “Well, why don’t they know?” Well now I think, “Why would they? Why would they know?” Because in the modern age there is not a direct connection to it. It’s there at the grocery store and that’s where you get food. It’s not beyond that. It’s not putting a sickle in your hand, cutting the wheat, threshing it out and that’s your daily bread. There’s no connection. Where in the 18th century, it’s very direct and now it’s so far away. I think it’s a good thing for them to know, and many visitors do. Many come to Great Hopes to get that connection to help their children get that connection. I think that’s a good thing to know as a human being.

Harmony: And we hope that as many people as possible do come to see you at Great Hopes and make that connection. What days are you open and where are you located?

Ed: We’re located right across the bridge from the Visitor’s Center. It’s a very short walk and we’re open every single day except Wednesday.

Harmony: Thank you so much for being here today. It’s been a pleasure talking to you.

Ed: You’re welcome.


  1. Great podcast, Ed! We applaud Duke and Dan (the 7 year old oxen steer), Wayne Randolph and your own lost arts efforts in the agricultural domain. We especially like how you have integrated the subject of clothing and how cotton, flax, and hemp figure in with these requirements.

    Your discussion of draft animal power and heritage breeds are both very educational for all.

    Lastly, the tie in with holistic resource management (and regenerative agriculture) are awesome. We hope that this podcast inspires others to get involved in the resurgence of beginning farmers who are turning to our own complementary curricula namely holistic management and SPIN-Farming.

    Go Great Hopes Plantation!
    Thank you!

  2. Ed, very imformative. You are doing what we at Nash Farm to be doing in the not too distant future. We have or eye on a few head of heritage breed sheep and young cows for our site. Maybe a couple will prove to be oxen with a good heart. Keep up the good work. Your program is an inspiration to many.

  3. Great job Ed! I really like how you explained how one works with horses and oxen. That is a tough concept to get through to new employees and visitors. Your explanation makes it much more understandable (if that is a word!).

  4. Hey Ed, enjoyed your podcast. I am lead AG. at Barrington Living History Farm, Washington on the Brazos State Park, Washington, TX. Much of what you said I have interperted over my past nine years. You are correct in your evaluation that people today have a disconect to their sources of food as well as many other services as primo as good drinking water. I have trained 3 teams of oxen, two of which are active on our farm. They are Pinewoods, from old Spanish stock from Flordia, they average 1500 lbs. We also use Ossabaw hogs. It is encouriging to hear from a counterpart “out there”. Fine job! Mark

  5. Well done, Ed. Great descriptions. Always good to hear your voice.

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