Short Rows: My, how farming has changed in a half-century

Published 7:13 pm Tuesday, November 1, 2022

Agriculture as we know it today is on full display during the fall months as huge, specialized combines harvest cotton, peanuts, corn and soybeans. But harvesting technology is just a fraction of the changes that have occurred during the past half-century as the small pork and peanut farms that once defined Isle of Wight and Surry have disappeared.

A 20-acre field, in my youth, took days to “break” with a two-bottom turn plow pulled by a small tractor. It then took additional days to disc and plant that field. Not much before my time, a mule and plow had taken even longer. That field can now be tilled and planted in a single step that takes a few hours.

When corn was planted and grown in that 20 acres, it had to be picked with an old one- or two-row picker pulled behind the same tractor. The ears of corn that were “snapped” from the stalk were dropped by the picker into a trailer and then hauled to a corn crib, where the corn often had to be shoveled by hand from the trailer into the crib, from which they were later fed whole, ground into feed or shelled and then ground for use. Days of labor by multiple people were again involved.

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Now, a combine picks and shells the corn from many rows in a single pass. The corn is transferred by augur to trucks and hauled to a grainery for sale or storage.

In the 1950s, the broken cornstalks left by the picker remained in the field until disc harrowed under months later. In the meantime, hogs were turned into the field to forage for whatever corn the picker had missed or shelled along the way.

A peanut field was treated in much the same fashion. Stationary, belt-driven pickers were brought in to pick peanuts from vines that had been shocked in rows. It took a half-dozen people or more to operate a picker — two to use a shock cart hauling shocks to the picker, one to feed the machine, one or two to bag and stack sacks of peanuts and one or two to fork peanut vines from the back of the picker into at pile.

Bags of peanuts then had to be loaded onto wagons or trucks to be hauled to a barn or to a peanut buying station. Again, all of that was hand labor.

Once the peanuts were picked, the field became another foraging location for hogs. Back then, “peanut fed” hogs and hams were more than myth. They were the real thing.

By the 1960s, peanut combines were replacing pickers. The combines were pulled by tractors. Combined peanuts were dumped into drying trailers and hauled to drying stations where warm air was blown through them to artificially dry peanuts.

Today, peanut combines are massive, self-propelled machines. They transfer peanuts into tractor trailers equipped with false bottoms that make them massive drying trailers.

Cotton combines now produce huge round bales that are dropped behind the combine, to be moved later and eventually hauled to a cotton gin. That technology replaced cotton modules, which in turn replaced loose cotton in trailers. And all of that’s occurred during the past few decades.

As for the fields, when a peanut or cotton field is combined, cover crops — virtually unheard of in the 1950s — are planted to provide a moisture and soil-conserving cover crop or spring wheat crop.

Each of these, as well as other farm operations, seem to happen faster every year. In fact, you have to be paying attention if you want to watch any phase of a farm operation in practice. If a tractor or combine is in a small field when you drive to town, it may well have moved on by the time you return an hour or two later.

There are still a few cattle herds in this part of Virginia, and numerous small horse farms, alpaca herds and other livestock, but they are the exception today. The bulk of Southeast Virginia’s agriculture is large fields managed by large equipment and a small number of highly skilled and knowledgeable people.

What hasn’t changed in local agriculture are the pleasant smells associated with fall. Freshly dug peanuts on a damp, still evening produce an aroma that tingles the taste buds. I also enjoy the smell of corn fodder slowly decaying in a field. It’s a more subtle aroma, but one that clearly speaks of fall in the country.

On the other hand, I don’t particularly miss the smell of open hog lots. They were ubiquitous in our two counties during the 1950s, so we didn’t pay too much attention to the smell back then. In fact, we used to say hogs smelled like money, but you should probably be happy that the odor of hogs is no longer pervasive.


John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is