The first settlers in West Virginia were adventurous individuals and families seeking a new life in a new land. Little was understood of elevations and mean rainfall, but the cool mountains and fertile valleys attracted a variety of hardy pioneers. These first arrivals possessed or quickly learned frontier ways. They needed woodsmen skills to harvest timber and build houses, barns, and other buildings. They trapped and hunted for food and skins. They gathered fruit, nuts, roots, and the sap from maple trees.
As land was cleared for growing corn, wheat, and buckwheat and for grazing animals, gathering and hunting became less essential to meeting the family’s needs. Goods acquired by hunting, trapping, and gathering continued to be of value for trade, but domestic grains, fruits, and the products of domestic animals gained in importance. Various areas of present West Virginia went through these stages of development in the late 1700s and early 1800s.
By the time of the Civil War farms and orchards were well developed statewide. Cattlemen were improving their herds with superior breeding stock, and some larger operators had established patterns of winter feeding on home farms and summer grazing on well identified mountain pastures. When ready for slaughter, cattle were driven to eastern market centers because rail lines were mostly lacking.
The Civil War brought crushing setbacks, but with the cessation of hostility and the attainment of statehood agriculture recovered and rapidly made up for earlier losses. By 1869, West Virginia had 40,000 farms totaling 8.6 million acres. The number of farms and acreage of improved land increased steadily during the next decade. Thereafter the number of farms continued to increase, but the total farm acreage at the end of the 19th century was about the same as in the 1860s. By 1900 there were nearly 100,000 farms in West Virginia, occupying more than 8.9 million acres. Pasture and hay land made up most of the farm acreage, but farmers grew thousands of acres of corn, small grains, and potatoes on land later deemed unsuitable for row and grain crops. Sales were largely confined to local markets.
The number of farms peaked at 105,000 in 1935, and dropped steadily thereafter. In 2010, West Virginia had 23,000 farms, a decline of 200 farms from the year before, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The average size of the farm was 159 acres, the same as in 2009. The total farmland in West Virginia fell by 50,000 acres to 3.65 million acres.
Many of the soils in the state are steeply sloping and tend to be shallow, acidic, and deficient in available phosphorus. As early as the late 19th century progressive farmers used rock phosphate, bone meal, and lime to increase crop yield and quality. Since the mid-20th century farmers have used soil tests and corrected mineral deficiencies. Most crop land and much of the pasture land are no longer severely deficient in essential nutrients. West Virginia has always been primarily a livestock producing state. Land on steep slopes is best suited to producing pasture and hay. A half-century ago the value of livestock, dairy, poultry, and crops each made up about one-fourth of total agricultural value. Since then, dairy enterprises and crop production have diminished somewhat and beef cattle numbers have remained relatively constant.
Poultry production increased rapidly in the late 20th century as processors moved into West Virginia and entered into production contracts with farmers. At century’s end, poultry generated more than half of the total value of agricultural production. Commercial broiler production started in the 1930s in several South Branch Valley counties, reaching 100,000 broilers in 1935 and increasing steadily for the next four decades. The state produced about 20 million broilers in 1980, increasing rapidly to more than 90 million at the end of the century. Turkey production has doubled since 1980 to the present level of about 4 million birds per year. As with broilers, turkey production predominates in Hardy, Pendleton, and Greenbrier counties . Currently, almost all egg production is for broiler hatching and not table egg production.
Dairy farming saw many changes in the 20th century. Most visible was the shift from mixed and cross-bred herds early in the century to several European breeds, including Holstein, Ayrshire, Jersey, Guernsey, and a few others, and then overwhelmingly to Holsteins by century’s end. Artificial insemination and embryo transfer, scientific feeding, and the use of nutritional supplements and hormones were among the factors leading to an increase in yearly milk production per cow from less than 5,000 pounds in 1900 to more than 15,000 pounds in 2000. At the same time, improved equipment for milking and feed handling reduced labor needs. National overproduction resulted, and many West Virginia dairymen found it impossible to compete. As the industry shifted westward, the number of dairy producers in West Virginia steadily declined, with many farmers taking advantage of a federal herd buyout in the 1980s. The number of dairy cows fell from about 34,000 in 1985 to about 24,000 in 1990, and annual milk production fell from 382 million pounds to 270 million pounds.
The beef cattle industry historically has been the most stable agricultural enterprise. Cattle numbers peaked during World War II at 628,000 head, compared with 440,000 to 480,000 during the 1990s. Production is spread over the state, with greatest concentrations in counties along and east of the Allegheny range. Other pockets of high concentration are in Mason, Jackson, and Wood counties along the Ohio River and in the central counties of Harrison, Lewis, and Upshur. Cow-calf operations and summer grazing programs are the most common and widespread livestock enterprises. Mountain pastures have long been a prized asset to the cattle industry.
The state has always been a leader in livestock marketing. Extension Service marketing specialists held the first graded feeder calf sale in America at Jackson’s Mill in the early 1930s. Producers now sell their cattle and other livestock at about a dozen licensed livestock markets around the state, with about five of these markets accounting for a high percentage of the livestock sold. Modern communications supplement the sales effort. Using a system of ‘‘tele-auctions’’ buyers on the telephone compete with each other and local buyers for uniform truckload lots of graded cattle.
Sheep numbers peaked in the late 19th century with more than 800,000 head in flocks distributed over most of the state. Numbers have declined steadily, and currently most of the 30,000 to 40,000 sheep in the state are concentrated in Greenbrier, Pendleton, Pocahontas, Randolph, and a few adjoining counties.
Hog numbers also peaked early and have declined for many years. As a commercial hog industry developed outside of West Virginia, swine production on small farms became less attractive. Currently Berkeley, Hampshire, Hardy, Jefferson, Mason, and Preston are leading counties in hog production and are also leading corn producers.
Most West Virginia farmland produces grass. Nearly one third of the 3.7 million acres of farmland in the state is devoted to permanent pastures. In addition, livestock producers use nearly one fifth of the 1.0 million acres of cropland for rotation pasture. They harvest hay from about 85 percent of the remainder.
Hay acreage has been consistently high, peaking at about 840,000 acres in the early 1940s when cattle numbers peaked. In the 2000s hay production accounted for about 600,000 acres annually. Alfalfa hay acreage peaked at 140,000 acres in the 1950s and total production at 330,000 tons in the mid-1980s. Alfalfa is best adapted to deep limestone influenced soils. As dairy cow numbers declined there has been a corresponding reduction of alfalfa production.
Corn and small grains once grew on much of the acreage now devoted to hay and pasture. At the end of the 19th century West Virginia farmers grew 1.2 million acres of corn and wheat. It wasn’t until the formation of the USDA Soil Conservation Service in the 1930s that more appropriate land use prevailed. Farmers reserved their best land for corn and small grain and allowed steeper land to remain in semi-permanent hay or pasture. The healed gullies seen today are a reminder of a former time when soil erosion was a severe and unsightly problem on steep crop land.
Nowadays, about 40 percent of the corn crop is harvested by chopping the entire plant and storing as silage for use as animal feed. An important benefit of corn silage over corn for grain is that it produces nearly twice as much feed because the whole plant is used. A few counties produce most of the corn. Sixty percent to 70 percent of corn production for both grain and silage occurs in Jefferson, Berkeley, Hardy, Preston, and Mason counties. Only Jefferson County regularly harvests more than one million bushels and produces more corn than is used in the county.
Except for wartime, small grain production has steadily declined for a century. While still important on individual farms, wheat, oats, and barley provide a small portion of total farm income. Preston County leads the state in oats, and Jefferson leads in wheat and barley. Farmers grew the highest acreage of soybeans early in the 20th century, mostly for hay. Currently, growers produce soybeans for a cash market mostly in the Eastern Panhandle and Ohio Valley.
Burley tobacco has been an important cash crop for farmers in a few southwestern counties since West Virginia became a state. In recent years Mason has displaced Lincoln as the leading tobacco producer. Other tobacco producing counties are Putnam, Cabell, Jackson, and Monroe, with smaller acreages in Roane and Wirt. In the early 1900s annual leaf production exceeded 14 million pounds. With production quotas established in the 1930s to stabilize prices and with more recent health concerns, the amount of tobacco grown in West Virginia has declined. Recently, growers have produced less than half a million pounds of leaf per year. Alternative crops are being sought which will provide acceptable income.
The Eastern Panhandle counties of Berkeley, Hampshire, Jefferson, and Morgan account for nearly 95 percent of apple and peach production. These counties also produce almost all of the nectarines, cherries, plums, and pears. Commercial orchards expanded rapidly during and following World War II, largely in response to the presence of processing and marketing facilities in and near the Panhandle. Production had declined by about half at the end of the 20th century, to about 125 million pounds of apples and 13 million pounds of peaches per year. Growers sell most of the peaches as fresh fruit. Early in the 20th century growers sold more than half of their apples as fresh fruit. Now they sell slightly more than 20 percent for fresh use and the remainder to food processors. Ninety percent of apple trees set before 1965 were on standard rootstocks, but now 90 percent of new plantings are on dwarf or semi-dwarf rootstocks.
Production of small fruit (raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, blueberries) is of small magnitude and occurs all over the state to supply local markets. Grape production has increased somewhat, largely for wine making. There are about a dozen wineries, spread generally throughout the state. Each has several acres of grapes and buys additional grapes from West Virginia growers. By law, 75 percent of their wine must be from grapes grown in the state.
New and non-traditional enterprises such as raising goats, trout and other fish production and organic crop production are increasing in importance. A growing array of small enterprises produce fruit, potatoes and other vegetables, herbs, cut flowers, bedding plants, ginseng, black walnuts, sorghum molasses, and countless other products primarily for local markets. Growers sell these products on the farm, at the courthouse square in some counties, or at one of about 140 roadside stands or farmers markets.
Farmers belong to a variety of organizations, the West Virginia Farm Bureau being the largest. Other organizations include the West Virginia Cattlemen’s Association, West Virginia State Horticultural Society, and the West Virginia Soil Conservation Districts. In addition, there are numerous local livestock marketing alliances and farm supply associations and recently formed organic and non organic produce buying and selling organizations.
The 20th century brought dramatic changes to the nature of farming in the Mountain State. At the close of the century West Virginia farmers were as deeply involved with meeting environmental and health concerns as they had been with production practices and erosion control a few decades earlier. Almost all farms with concentrations of animals were using some aspect of nutrient and animal waste plans to ensure wise land husbandry. Programs were in place for nutrient and waste management and for pesticide use certification. In addition producer-run voluntary programs in the livestock industry and for organic farms encouraged acceptance in the marketplace.
This Article was written by Charles Sperow
Last Revised on September 04, 2012
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Rice, Otis K. & Stephen W. Brown. West Virginia: A History. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1993.