In the years following the American Revolution, the planter elite of Maryland and Virginia feverishly embarked on a program to revitalize the region’s declining agricultural economy. Successive generations of tobacco, corn and wheat planting had taken its toll on the landscape. The scene was littered with abandoned mansions standing in “silence and ruin.” According to noted agricultural historian Avery Craven, the once prospering Tidewater Counties were “growing poorer… its proprietors having no hope of improvement of their lands.” In 1791, George Washington invited the noted British agriculturalist Arthur Young to survey the farming methods and conditions in northern Virginia and Maryland. Young reported that in spite of efforts made by progressive planters such as Washington, the land under such methods of cultivation was steadily declining as the average yield of wheat stood at less than a third of their British cousins across the Atlantic. Washington himself questioned as to whether such ruinous methods of cultivation even deserved to be considered a “system of agriculture.”
As the lands in older communities were exhausted, countless landowners chose to head westward in search of fresh lands rather than reinvesting to improve existing farmland. In 1790, less than ten years after the birth of Thomas Emory, the population of Queen Anne’s County stood at 15,463. By 1840, just two years before his death, the county’s population had fallen by nearly 20% to a mere 12,633. Thomas Emory inherited an estate that had been under cultivation since the seventeenth century, and was undoubtedly producing yields of grain that were a mere fraction of its former days.
In the absence of detailed farm ledgers it is impossible to judge as to whether or not Thomas Emory was able to turn the tide. However, what is certain is that Thomas Emory was at the forefront of a movement “attempting” to bring hope and restored prosperity to his native region. He belonged to an elite class of major landowners throughout the Chesapeake hoping to emulate their cousins in the English landed gentry in leading a revival of agricultural production through the use of new scientific methods. After traveling to England to witness for himself, John Beale Bordley of Wye Island adopted the “Norfolk” system of four-field crop rotations. George Washington imported gypsum to be spread on his fields at Mount Vernon, while John Taylor touted the importance of enclosing livestock to collect vast amounts of animal manure. These gentlemen farmers experimented widely with new methods and techniques, and shared their experiences with their fellow planters at county and state agricultural societies. It is known that Thomas Emory himself was among the founders of the Maryland Agricultural Society.
In the course of our own findings we have indeed stumbled upon one of those letters from Ruffin, asking Thomas Emory for any ideas and lessons learned from his own trials at Poplar Grove. I am not sure as to whether Thomas Emory indeed sent back some personal experiences of success and or failure, but I hope to find that out in the next week or so. In the age before government cooperative extension agents and land grant universities, the only way of learning new agricultural methods was through your own trial and error, or through the lessons of your fellow planters.
With that said though, this rather small clique of gentlemen farmers for the first time in at least a generation was able to bring a breath of fresh hope to the Tidewater Region of Maryland and Virginia. Edmund Ruffin perhaps said it best that the Tidewater “as well deserves as the rich west itself to be the object of speculators, treasure hunters, and builders of castles in the air.” More importantly, the gentry recognized that education was the key to ending decline and neglect on the farm. In Virginia, Ruffin was successful in creating a state agricultural board to report farming conditions to the legislature. In Maryland, the state agricultural society was able in 1848 to get the government to fund a state agriculture chemist. Furthermore, less than a decade later they succeeded in founding a state experimental station and the world’s third agricultural college. The list of petitioners and subscribers to the Maryland Agricultural College at its founding reads like a who’s who of the landed gentry and planter elite of Maryland. The long term success of large planters such as Emory, Taylor, Ruffin, Taylor or Washington lies less in actual research completed than in creating a framework for the systematic and professional study of agricultural methods through state-funded programs and institutions.