Column – God bless those who still ‘labor in the earth’

Published 5:05 pm Tuesday, May 7, 2024

Clay Jenkinson spoke eloquently during his visit here several weeks ago about our lost connection with the natural world in which we live.

Jenkinson was at Smithfield High School portraying Thomas Jefferson — agronomist, horticulturist, epicurean and renowned (though disarmingly modest) statesman. 

Speaking as the Sage of Monticello, Jenkinson expressed affection for farmers, who Jefferson envisioned would be the corps of American life, the underpinning of the infant republic he and fellow founders envisioned. Jefferson believed that what he referred to as the “yeoman farmer” would be the embodiment of freedom that this new country needed. 

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“Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people,” Jefferson wrote in his only published book, “Notes on Virginia.”

That romantic view, of course, completely ignored the conundrum that haunted his life and his talk of free men in the age of slavery — and that by a slave owner. It was a contradiction Jefferson could never reconcile.

Nevertheless, Jefferson was totally serious in his admiration for farmers and his love of farming. Among his proudest accomplishments, he invented the moldboard plow, and thus did as much as any individual of that age to revolutionize agriculture. And he truly believed that small farms, managed by landowners and their families, would be the strength of America.

Late in the afternoon of his visit, and speaking as himself rather than as Jefferson, Jenkinson asked for a show of hands by those engaged in farming. It was hard to see all of the 600 people attending the lecture, but I got the impression that well under a dozen hands were raised.

And that’s not shocking. Isle of Wight County has long since ceased to be the rural, family farm county that it was following World War II. Back in the 1950s, there were about 550 working farms classified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which keeps track of such things. The average acreage of those family-operated farms was 187 acres. By 2022, the number of Isle of Wight farms listed by USDA had dropped to 212, fewer than half the 1950s number. The average acreage in 2022 was 379, about double. 

That sounds logical, but numbers can be deceiving, even when they’re accurate. It’s important to know that USDA classifies any operation generating at least $1,000 a year as a farm.

In the 1950s, most county farms fell into the 100- to 200-acre range. By 2022, however, small farms, many of them part-time enterprises, had emerged, creating the appearance that the decline in farms has ended and possibly even reversed. 

Today, 132 farms, more than 60% of the farm operations listed by USDA, are less than 150 acres in size. Forty-two percent are less than 50 acres. Those small farms generate, on average, less than $25,000 a year in sales.

The bulk of agricultural commodity sales come from the larger farms, larger than 500 acres, that are managed by 20% of the county’s farm operations.

None of that’s a bad thing. In reality, the emergence of small farm operations proves Jenkinson’s — and Jefferson’s — point. Digging in the soil — planting things, growing things, harvesting things — has value, as much for the human spirit as for the wallet, and those who do it are closer to nature than those of us who do not.

One of the largest increases in farm-type operation in the county has been the growth of small horse farms. I couldn’t locate horse population numbers, but it’s clear that the numbers have increased substantially during the past several decades.

We also now have a number of small chicken operations and even alpaca farms. There are no hog farms, to my knowledge, but hog farms of the old-fashioned variety were pretty smelly and not likely to appeal to modern sensitivities.

County planners years ago bemoaned the “farmettes” that emerged during the 1970s and 1980s, largely because of rules that prevented small lots for one reason or another. The planners told us — and it is certainly true, as far as the logic goes — that it’s more efficient to put two or three houses on an acre than one house on 10. They said that organized, compact subdivisions were far better. 

Out of that planning logic has come the subdivisions between Smithfield and the James River Bridge, including Benn’s Grant, the Bartlett condominiums and Eagle Harbor complex, with more in the works. 

It seems we overlooked the fact that planting sweet corn or strawberries on the other nine acres might be a better way of preserving the county’s rural quality of life than are a dozen more houses.

A toast to the people who are preserving those nine extra acres.


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