Bountiful Northampton County, VA Potatoes

Potatoes have been cultivated in the County since 1845. Northampton County was once the major potato producer for the entire United States. According to the 2017 USDA Ag Census, Northampton County plants over 2000 acres of potatoes yearly. The Eastern Shore accounted for 80% of Virginia's total potato crops making it the largest production area in the Commonwealth. Virginia farmers grow mostly white potatoes for fresh market and potato chips but other varieties such as red, russet and gold potatoes are also grown. 

What makes the Eastern Shore so productive? The soil and climate. 


At Altitude aerial photo of a tractor tilling a field
Photo Credit: Gordon Campbell/ @At Altitude  An aerial photo of a tractor kicking up dirt while tilling a farm field. Nearby creeks wind out to the Chesapeake Bay. The bright sunlight glints off the water, the smoky dust left in the tractor's wake and the brown hues of the newly planted fields. 

Northampton County, Virginia is cradled between the Atlantic Ocean to the east and the Chesapeake Bay to the west. This ancient peninsula teems with abundance. It is the place where fertile farmland meets the ocean. The climate of Northampton County is classified as temperate with mild winters and warm, humid summers. Latitude, topography, prevailing winds, and the proximity to the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean all exert an influence on the climate. The mild climate allows for bumper crops and second sowing of plants throughout the growing season. The soil is light sandy loam and easily tilled. 

Courtesy of the Virginia Cooperative Extension. 
This video covers the production of potatoes on The Eastern Shore of Virginia.  Learn more about cultivating potatoes from the Northampton County Cooperative Extension who enthusiastically shared this video with us. 

Like A Rolling Stone

Potato graders
Tater grader. Newly harvested potatoes run along the belts and are sorted by size. Photo credit: Liam Flynn 

Potatoes grown on the Eastern Shore are shipped to various parts of the country and Canada. A trucking report written during the 2017 harvest states, "Fresh potato shipments are particularly good for Canada this season with reds, russets and yellows being shipped from areas of the Eastern Shore. However, the majority of potatoes are shipped throughout the Northeast when those areas are not producing.

The largest russet grower on the Eastern Shore is Yaros Farms in Lower Northampton County. Dublin Farms in Horntown is one of Virginia’s biggest potato operations. It ships 12 to 15 loads daily from late June through mid-August."


County Admin building east entrance
Photo credit: Jean E. Flynn The east entrance to the County administration building is graced with a vibrant garden maintained by the ESVA Master Gardeners. Inside the entrance are displays about the roots of our agriculture. 

Visitors to the Northampton County administration building can learn about the rich history of our County in the various historical displays encountered throughout the building. Agriculture's Golden Age is one such display that tells about the history of when potatoes made Northampton County one of the wealthiest agricultural counties in the nation.  

White potatoes circa 1920
White potatoes sit in wooden barrels in the field ready to be shipped circa 1920. 


Agriculture's Golden Age

Beginning immediately after the Civil War, the steamboat and then the railroad and motor truck opened new markets for the produce of Eastern Shore farmers and watermen. While the Eastern Shore was a thoroughly rural society, its economy always had been integrated into the national market. Forced out of the eastern markets by an influx of cheap Midwestern grain, Eastern Shore farmers abandoned oats as a cash crop in favor of fruits and vegetables. The potato
became the new staple. The production of Irish potatoes on the peninsula increased from 290,000 to 2,500,000.

In 1924, Eastern Shore farmers dug from their fields a staggering 13,000,000 bushels of Irish potatoes. In 1928, a farmers' marketing association known as the Eastern Shore Produce Exchange alone required 23,000 railroad boxcars to transport the harvest. Eastern Shore farmers achieved their tremendous potato harvests through mechanization and the use of pesticides and fertilizers (including pine shatters) and by reducing or eliminating the acreage devoted to other crops.

Oysters and potatoes went to market in wooden barrels. Sawmills and barrel factories were seemingly everywhere. Besides producing around 4,000,000 barrels annually, they provided shingles, laths, lumber, stove wood and railroad ties for the local and national markets, as well as mine props for the coal fields of western Virginia and West Virginia. Besides potatoes, diversification continued over the years with the harvesting of sweet potatoes, cucumbers, tomatoes, peas, snap beans, spinach, strawberries and cotton.
Eastern Shore harvests were transported to local canning companies for processing and shipment across the world.

Courtesy B. Miles Barnes, Eastern Shore Public Library from the Northampton County historical display. 

Harvesting potatoes


Following the Civil War,  the rural Eastern Shore farmer was dirt poor. But that changed when a group of farmers banded together to form the Eastern Shore Produce Exchange, one of the first farmer's marketing cooperatives in the country. 

The Historic Architectural Resource Survey for Accomack and Northampton Counties explains, "On January 20, 1900, the Eastern Shore of Virginia Produce Exchange was chartered by the General Assembly. The organization was formed to buy and sell produce as the agent of the producer, to inspect all produce, to operate storage and packing houses, and to conduct any other appropriate business associated with the trade of produce. Following the establishment of the Produce Exchange, a grading system was enacted, ensuring quality and uniform products. Produce profits increased and potato acreage in the Eastern Shore rapidly increased, creating a one-crop system of farming, which resulted in a substantial cash income for the shore."

Two articles go into great detail about how the railroad brought prosperity to the Eastern Shore and how the long storing potato made the Eastern Shore rich and known for it's high quality produce:
For more information please read: When Farming on Virginia’s Eastern Shore Took a Turn Out of “It’s a Wonderful Life” by Jim Duffy published July 2020 and found on his blog Secrets of the Eastern Shore and The Countryside Transformed: The Eastern Shore of Virginia, the Pennsylvania Railroad, and the Creation of a Modern Landscape by William G. Thomas III UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA, Brooks Miles Barnes EASTERN SHORE PUBLIC LIBRARY, Tom Szuba UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA, published July 2007. 

How to grow potatoes in a garden or bucket

Spring Vegetable Garden
 A spring vegetable garden of potatoes, garlic, mustard and peas with irises and roses in bloom. Photo credit: Jean E. Flynn 

Potatoes are great fun to grow. Those old potatoes in your root bin that have sprouted eyes, those are seed potatoes and can be planted in your garden.  Throughout the growing season the more you hill soil, compost and mulch around the green leaves and stems, the more potatoes you'll harvest. Those stems make roots once they are covered up with soil and those roots are potatoes! If you don't have much garden space, you can grow potatoes in a five gallon bucket. Digging up potatoes once they are ready to harvest is like digging for buried treasure- ruby Reds and Yukon gold. 

Check out this article for step by step instructions to grow delicious potatoes for your table: 
7 steps for planting, harvesting and storing potatoes at home

Potato harvest


Gleaning is harvesting the excess produce left on fields after they have been mechanically picked over. The vegetables left on the fields that won't go to market are offered up to those who wish to share in the abundance. It's a neighborly way to use the produce that would otherwise be wasted.  The practice of gleaning began in biblical times and still continues today. Northampton County farmers, David and Virginia Long of Long Grain and Livesotck puts this practice to work as you can see in the video below. 

According to the news article Harvest of Hope gleans 25K pounds of food on Va. Shore written by Carol Vaughn for Delmarva Now and published in 2015, there are more Northampton County farmers who allow gleaning on their farms. Harvest of Hope is a mission that brings youth to the Shore to glean fields after harvest and donates it to foodbanks. 
"Harvest of Hope, a mission of the Society of St. Andrew, is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. The society’s mission is to find and rescue food that cannot be marketed but is still good to eat.

“We have 40 million Americans who are hungry; why aren’t they getting this kind of food?” Leach said.

On the Eastern Shore of Virginia, farmer Butch Nottingham years ago was among the first to offer the group the chance to glean potatoes, Leach said.

Leach credited local churches and farmers with making the mission possible. “I can’t afford to do this ministry unless we have support from the local community,” he said.

The teens this year gleaned in the fields of farmers Bruce Richardson, David Long, W. T. Nottingham, and at the Agricultural Research and Experimental Station."  

Kudos to our Northampton County farmers for growing the foods we eat and sharing the abundance so others won't go hungry.