Tobacco Maps for Virginia Transect 2008
The tour of the Glascock's tobacco farm was fantastic and I hope that you found it as educational and as enlightening as I did. Joe Enedy will be providing you with a collection of images and videos that I took on two previous visits which show the greenhouse in full leaf and the plant setting process. What I'm adding here are maps and graphs showing both historical and geographical trends in Virginia tobacco production. Commentary for each of the graphs and maps will follow, so check back here for interpretive comments as they are added.
The graph below is an overall view of land in tobacco and pounds produced in Virginia from 1866 to 2007. Harvested acreage is in blue and pounds produced is in red. Something to keep in mind here is that those two statistics also get you to yield per acre, which is a measure of the efficiency of tobacco operations. When acreage exceeds production, efficiency is low; when production exceeds acreage, efficiency is high and there is a greater yield per acre. Several things to note here: first is the obvious rise in both acreage and production after the Civil War, but with low yields (read: inefficient methods); second, note the precipitous decline in acreage and production during the 1920s and 1930s, which was caused by the effects of the Great Depression and the African-American exodus from the South, which in turn triggered the federal government's allotments (controlling acres planted), auction systems, and price supports; third, note how production and acreage increased in the 1940s and 1950s - albeit never reaching pre-Depression levels - and that production begins to exceed acreage, indicating more efficient farming methods - primarily through the use of machinery (which replaced farmhands and in part fueled the emigration of African-Americans).
The graph below shows acreage trends for the four tobacco types from 1934 to 2005. Of note here is the clear dominance of flue-cured tobacco (like the Glascock's), and the general low acreage devoted to burley, fire-cured, and sun-cured tobaccos respectively. All are in decline and sun-cured was down to seventy acres or less as of 2005 and may have become extinct. A sign of things to come is the sharp decline in all tobacco types after 2004, when the allotment and price support program was phased out.
The map below shows the state-wide extent of tobacco production from 1934 to 2004. These are all the counties that reported different types of tobaccos being produced back to 1934. It becomes a bit of a jumble in south-central Virginia because so many types of tobacco historically have been grown there. There has been a great degree of sorting out, such that today sun-cured is found only in an arc around Richmond, burley is confined almost exclusively to southwest Virginia, and flue-cured and fire-cured tobaccos are interspersed in Southside Virginia. Keep in mind that during the colonial period there were literally no counties in Virginia (excluding the future territory of West Virginia) that didn't grow tobacco!
The map below shows the extent of sun-cured tobacco production in 1934 and it's meager remnant in 2004. Sun-cured tobacco may be the least important today, but it once ruled the Virginia economy. Sun-cured tobacco is a dark air-cured variety that I believe is the descendant of the tobacco known as "sweet-scented" during the colonial period. Most of the historic range shown in the green diagonal pattern conforms perfectly with the sweet-scented subregion that originated in the dark loamy soils along the lower James River, the York and its tributaries, and the Rappahannock River. All Virginia tobaccos originate in the same stain of tobacco - Nicotiana tabacum - imported from the Orinoco River Basin of northern South America. It is a very versatile plant and can grow in many different environments. Not long after John Rolfe successfully introduced tobacco production to Virginia, planters discovered that when tobacco was shifted away from the river bottoms and ventured into sandy soils found closer to the ocean or clay soils in the high necklands and piedmont, their tobacco was not as dense and aromatic as in the sweet-scented areas. Sweet-scented became the preferred smoking tobacco in Britain and it usually brought much greater profits to sweet-scented producers. Where sweet-scented could be grown, great fortunes arose, which also meant that the sweet-scented area was the center of the plantation economy and had the highest density of African slave labor during the colonial period. Strangely, by about 1800 the term "sweet-scented" tobacco disappears, even though a great deal of tobacco was still being raised in the traditional sweet-scented areas. What makes sun-cured tobacco a likely candidate as heir to the sweet-scented legacy? First, it is a dark tobacco, just like sweet-scented. Second, it is cured in the same manner as sweet-scented was during the colonial period: by cutting the whole stalk, setting the cut plants out to dry in the sun, and by hanging the entire plant for air-curing. Third, it still is prized as a pipe tobacco in Europe. It is a shame that it is nearly extinct. After 2004, so few farmers were growing it that disclosure laws prevent a county-by-county analysis of where it is still being grown. There were only seventy acres devoted to it in all of Virginia in 2005.
Disclaimer: I wrote a whole dissertation on the colonial sweet-scented/Oronoco dichotomy, so you can understand how I might go on and on about it!
Last updated July 11, 2008