I don’t watch a lot of TV, but when I do, I always check to see what is playing on the History Channel or the American Heroes Channel, formerly known as the Military Channel. I have always enjoyed history; it is interesting to study what happened, why it happened that way and how it affected what happened next.

I am sorry to say that as I progress along in this world, I am becoming more and more of an authority on history because I have lived through more and more of it personally. While I am not ancient, I freely admit that times have changed and not always in ways that were easily foreseen.

For example, if you are over the age of 50, did you ever imagine that there would come a time when the fall would not bring a new Sears Christmas Wishbook in the mail? Who of us in 1978 could have foreseen a time when not only would there be no Sears catalog, but no Sears either? If you are under 30, you are probably googling the word “Wishbook” to see what the heck that was, and, if you are under 10, you may be thinking “Sears?”

I recently was asked to do a presentation on Smyth County agriculture at the National Ag Agents’ Annual Meeting in Fort Wayne, Indiana. In doing my research, I thought about the history of agriculture in our area and how very much things have changed.

Walter Robinson, the ANR agent in Smyth County for over 30 years, shared that when they conducted the pooling of wool from sheep shearing, they would send a train car load of wool to market from Smyth County. Today, we rarely have a bag of wool every few years. Of course, hair sheep have taken the place of wool sheep and since the price of wool is less today than it was 41 years ago, it is understandable to see why no one bothers with wool.

The best way to investigate agriculture’s past is to go to the USDA’s site and look up the Census of Agriculture for a given year. I recently pulled up the census for 1978, and while I knew much about the scope of certain commodities, seeing the actual numbers in black and white was eye-opening.

In 1978, Smyth County reported 687 tobacco farms; I personally thought that would have been higher, but it is still a bunch. Those farms produced 1.45 million pounds of tobacco from 747 acres. Today, we have two growers remaining, growing about 20,000 pounds on seven acres.

Also included in the Census of 1978 was the data for dairy farms. That year, Smyth County had 163 dairies, milking 3,875 cows. Today we have six dairies milking 400 cows. So what happened? Why did it happen and what is happening as a result?

Tobacco and dairy in 1978 and 2019 share a common thread. In 1978, both commodities had strict supply management protocols in place. If you wanted to raise tobacco, you had to have an allotment. The allotment originally stated the exact size a producer’s patch could be. The allotments were tied to the farm land and when the farm sold, the allotment sold with it. If a grower had 3/8 of an acre allotment and their patch was measured to be 1/2 acre, a 1/8 of an acre was destroyed. By 1978, allotments were stated in pounds, but the intent was pretty much the same. If you had 5,000 pounds of allotment and showed up at the market with 10,000 pounds, half your crop was going home with you. There were some mechanisms for going over slightly, but the same rules applied to everyone.

If you milked cows in 1978 in Smyth County, you were trying to get all the milk you could right now. In 1978, every dairy was subject to a base (as in market base) building period. From Sept. 1 to Nov. 30 each year, the amount of milk you shipped was recorded and divided by 91 (the number of days in the period). Let’s say that from September until the end of November, your cows produced a total of 270,000 pounds of milk. This would equate to just under 3,000 pounds of milk per day. Once that daily number was established that would become the amount of milk you could ship at full price until the next base period rolled around in September. You could ship more if you wanted to, but the price you got for the excess was far below the set base price.

Although they had different nomenclature, the results of these programs were the same. No one got rich, but everyone knew pretty much what they could earn for the next year. If you wanted to grow, you could, but you had to purchase the allotment or base from a person who wasn’t going to use it anymore. Supply and demand were balanced as much as humanly possible, and the result was that farmers could raise a family, send their children to college and buy a few things along the way without taking a second mortgage.

In the 1980s, the dairy base system went away. Costs for administering the programs and calls for more free access to markets ended a system that stabilized the industry during its “golden years.” In the 1970s, if you told a banker you wanted to milk cows, you pretty much had the loan guaranteed. A few years ago, a local producer sought a small loan that was about a 1 percent increase over what he already owed. He was turned down.

By the same token, the late 1990s and early 2000s saw the removal of the allotment system in tobacco. At first, this mostly affected the elderly farmer who counted on the rental or purchase of tobacco poundage as part of his retirement. Over time, the expansion of domestic acreage on a per farm basis, the inflow of imported leaf and the slowing of demand for tobacco products led to the near extinction of tobacco from the “Burley Belt.” In 1978, over a million dollars of tobacco was sold every day in the town of Abingdon. Today, local growers must haul their crop to North Carolina to find a market.

The lesson for us today is the importance of markets and market stability. If you are planning to begin a new enterprise, agricultural or otherwise, and you plan to make money from growing five acres or five animals, consider this. If it really happens and you hit on a success, what is to keep a producer in Texas or Nebraska or Florida or California or next door for that matter from growing 5,000 acres or 50,000 animals next year? Or offer their same sized production to your customers for a dollar less next season? No commodity is ever totally safe and free from volatility, but it is also true that if we pay no attention to history, we are doomed to repeat it.

Upcoming Events

Sept. 9-14--Washington County Fair.

Sept. 26-29--Chilhowie Apple Festival.

Sept. 27-Oct. 6--State Fair of Virginia.

Oct. 2--Pesticide Disposal (Commercial and Homeowners), Supergro, Seven Mile Ford.

Oct. 4--Deadline to Consign Calves for the Nov. 6 VQA Sale.

Oct. 5--Hokie Bugfest, Squires Student Center, Blacksburg.

Oct. 9--Smyth County AG Day for 4th Graders, WL Hanger, Chilhowie.

Nov. 1--Deadline to Consign Calves to December VQA Sale.

Nov. 6--VQA Sale, Tri State Livestock Market, 7 p.m.

Nov. 11--VQA Steer Take Up, Tri-State.                

Nov. 13--VQA Heifer Take Up, Tri State.

Nov. 18--Smyth County Farm Management/Private Pesticide Recertification Meeting, 6 p.m., Farm Bureau Building in Marion.

Nov. 20--Pesticide Recertification, 8:30 a.m., Smyth County Extension Office.

Dec. 4--VQA Sale, Tri State Livestock Market, 7 p.m.

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Dr. Andy Overbay is Smyth County’s agriculture and natural resources extension agent.

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