Why Late 18th Century Tobacco Farmers Switched to Wheat Cultivation

by Debbie Robison

 May 2005, Revised June 2005

Tobacco farmers to a great extent discontinued cultivating tobacco at the end of the 18th century. By 1791, tobacco is rarely mentioned in advertisements placed in the Alexandria Gazette. (See Federal Period Landscapes) Farmers began cultivating wheat, rye, timothy, and corn. The reason for this change in farming practice has generally been attributed to tobacco's depletion of nutrients from the soil.

Alexandria's tobacco inspectors, in a 1798 petition to the Virginia General Assembly, attributed the change to the high prices farmers were garnering for wheat and flour due to the European war. Five years earlier in 1793, the inspectors had petitioned the Assembly to discontinue inspections because the quantity of tobacco was so small the effort wasn't worthwhile.

…in consequence of the high price of wheat and flour for some years occasioned by the Eueopean War, the cultivation of Tobacco in the aforesaid Counties became almost totally neglected, and owing to that neglect the Propriators of the Tobacco Warehouses in the Town of Alexandria Petitioned the Assembly in the year 1793 to discontinue the Inspection because the very small quantity of Tobacco then made in the aforesaid Counties and brought to the warehouses afforded for small compensation…

[VA Legislative Petitions, 06 Dec 1798 ]

In 1798 the inspectors petitioned to re-establish tobacco inspections in consequence of the opinion that tobacco cultivation was on the rise due to higher tobacco prices and the uncertainty of making good wheat crops. However, they only offered as evidence the word of several whose opinions may be relied on.

I do not dispute that tobacco depletes nutrients from the soil, that famers left fields fallow afterwards, or that farmers ever moved on to richer fields to grow tobacco. My ascertation is that Northern Virginia farmers switched to wheat cultivation in the 1790's due to the European War. (How's that for a caveat.)