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Wheat in the Valley

Wheat-field-at-the-sunsetThe Shenandoah Valley’s fertile soils and its extensive system of easily-navigable rivers made it the perfect site for agriculture in Virginia.The Shenandoah Valley so prolifically produced wheat that it during the Civil War it was known as the Breadbasket of the Confederacy. Long before the Civil War, though, wheat was considered a major cash crop of the Shenandoah Valley.  Wheat was introduced into Virginia by English colonists in the 1600s, allowing them to reach self-sufficiency by 1630. By 1739, Virginia exported much of its wheat crop to the West Indies. By the mid 19th century, the Valley  was producing 22% of Virginia’s wheat crop, and Alexandria, Norfolk, and Richmond had turned into major wheat-exporting cities.

Due to the total war strategy employed during the Civil War, the Shenandoah Valley became a strategic theater of operations. In 1864, General Grant directed General Philip Sheridan to raid the Valley, “so that crows flying over it for the balance of the season will have to carry their provender with them.” Sheridan burnt large tracts of land in the Valley, along with destroying barns and killing livestock. The inhabitants of the Shenandoah Valley were left destitute, but wheat production continued to eek up in numbers. Despite the 40% decrease in production other wheat-producing areas in Virginia incurred, the Shenandoah Valley’s wheat production increased 10% during the 1860s. Part of this was a result of farmer’s determination to revive their biggest cash crop so that they could recover from the ravages of war.

Though the Shenandoah Valley still produces wheat today, most of the state’s wheat planting takes place in the Northern Neck of Virginia. Today, the Shenandoah Valley boasts a rich tourism trade, as well as a number of vineyards.

-Casey Marion, Long Branch Plantation Intern

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