The Transformation of Virginia

Published:February 5, 2009 by Brendan Wolfe

A remarkable fact from this morning’s Washington Post:

Tobacco crops in Southside and southwest Virginia once fueled the state’s economy. But in recent years, some farmers have turned to soybeans, hay and cattle. Others folded. The number of tobacco farms in Virginia has been cut by half. In 1997, Virginia tobacco farms produced 118,000 pounds of tobacco. Last year, they produced 46,000 pounds.

“It disappeared in the matter of two decades. It was so dramatic it’s almost indescribable,” said Neal E. Noyes, the [Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission’s] executive director.

It’s worth going back to Rhys Isaac‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Transformation of Virginia 1740–1790 (1982), in order to be reminded of how central tobacco has been to Virginia. I don’t mean only that it was economically important, that it “once fueled the state’s economy.” I mean that, in Isaac’s words, it was, with corn, one of “the twin staffs of life.” It dominated Virginians’ understanding of the landscape, of time, of the social order, and yes, of economics. Tobacco was money, literally.

So are we on the brink of a tobacco-less Virginia now? What does that mean for Virginia, or are we already living what it means?