Home to the First Thanksgiving
During Thanksgiving week, it seems appropriate to highlight the agricultural profile and contributions of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Although the holiday’s origination is commonly associated with Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1621 (as depicted in Jean Leon Gerome Ferris’s illustration above), there was an earlier Thanksgiving celebration more than two years prior, in 1619, in what is now Virginia. In fact, some historians push the earliest Thanksgiving celebrations in Virginia back to 1607. Regardless of when the first “official” Thanksgiving occurred, it is not disputed that the earliest celebrations occurred in the Old Dominion. With that in mind, let’s embark upon the next leg of our national journey to observe America’s Best Idea.
The value of corn and soybeans produced in Virginia in 2021, according to USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), are virtually identical. Corn, the most valuable crop in the state, was valued at $337.4 million. Soybeans, the number two crop by value, was estimated at $336.5 million. The difference–less than $1 million–represents 0.13 percent of the total value of the two crops. Meanwhile, the third-most valuable crop–hay–was valued not far behind soybeans at $294 million. From there, cotton (fourth, $84M), tobacco (5th, $73M), wheat (6th, $55M), peanuts (8th, $36M), and barley (10th, $1.8M) round out the traditional row crops’ domination of Virginia’s agricultural landscape. Interspersed in Virginia’s top ten crops by value are apples (7th, $42M) and pumpkins (9th, $15M).
In 2021, another USDA agency–the Economic Research Service–ranked Virginia at number 32 nationally in terms of gross receipts of farms at $4.38 billion, which represents 0.9 percent of the total agricultural gross receipts nationally. Of that total, $1.44B (32nd nationally) is from crops and $2.4B (26th nationally) is from animal agriculture, more than $1B of which comes from poultry production.
The Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, more commonly known as Virginia Tech (VT), is the state’s leading land-grant university (LGU). It is joined by the 1890 institution Virginia State University (VSU) in Petersburg as one of two LGUs in Virginia. VSU’s College of Agriculture’s plant science program at the Agricultural Research Station in Petersburg is home to the university’s hops and hemp research. Field research is conducted at the 416-acre Randolph Farm near the main campus.
One hundred sixty-five miles to the west of VSU lies Virginia’s other LGU, Virginia Tech, where you will find VT’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS). VT was founded in 1872 as the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College, a mere 253 years after the first Thanksgiving was celebrated in what later became Virginia. For comparison, only 150 years separates us today from the founding of Virginia Tech. Within VT’s School of Plant and Environmental Sciences (SPES) lies its plant breeding research. As you would expect, the university is involved in soybean and small grains breeding.
The Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station is another critical element of VT’s support of the state’s agricultural industry through its agricultural research activities. Its network of 11 Agricultural Research and Extension Centers (ARECs) across the state serve as a substantial resource for Virginia’s agricultural community. Several of the stations, including the Tidewater AREC in Suffolk, participate in variety testing activities. As in other states, results from these trials are shared through extension channels and inform nearby farmers on important variety selection and planting decisions.
We will appropriately conclude this stop on our tour of America’s Best Idea during Thanksgiving week by highlighting the wacky sport of Punkin Chunkin, which is basically the goal of trying to hurl a pumpkin as far as non-explosively possible through the air. For reference, the world record distance is 4,694.68 feet(!). Although Virginia is not specifically known for the sport, the state does produce a lot of the ammo, er…pumpkins, for the competitions. The niche sport hit its apex (pun intended) in the early-2010s after it had been prominently featured on the Discovery Channel. Following an unfortunate accident in 2016 that injured two people, the event has been in a relative state of flux. Event organizers are seeking a home for the event, according to its website. Even so, there is a dedicated following of the sport that merges amateur engineering and physics in a fascinating way, which is probably not surprising. Regional competitions like the one below in North Carolina, remain popular annual events.