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On the Eastern Shore

We’ve been on the road for a week, traveling south along the East Coast. Once you get past Wilmington, Delaware things start to get interesting.  If you can avoid Route 95, you’ll find yourself traveling through a terrain that is almost, though not quite, timeless.  One of my favorite locations is the Eastern Shore of Virginia, also known as the Delmarva Peninsula.  With all due respect to Delmar, the “va” portion of the peninsula seems most compelling.  The counties that border the Chesapeake Bay on the east are quite distinct from the rest of Virginia.  They are far less developed. Agriculture is clearly the most important industry.  This is perhaps the most typical of all scenes there. (Click on the image for a better view.)

The farmhouse is set back from the road, and surrounded by land under cultivation.  The farmhouse itself has a barn or two nearby and is surrounded by tall shade trees.  Often, you’ll also find a family cemetery.

Farming families go way back along the Eastern Shore and family farms are still quite viable here.  If you’re in the market for such challenging work, have a look here.  You’ll note that this is highly sophisticated work, at the interface of the sciences (agriscience and ecology) and business. There is little room for error given the downward pressure on prices and the upward pressure on costs. Unfortunately, we couldn’t help but notice as we drove along, the large number of distressed and in some cases abandoned properties one can view from Route 13, the main road  Many of those stately farmhouses and accompanying barns had seen better days. They were visually compelling in part because they were suggestive of an important yet difficult to discern story.

A sense of transition and change soon came to dominate our view of the landscape.  While there was some development underway, which inevitably leads to a different economic model and the loss of farm land, there is still a great deal of acreage under cultivation.  But the building stock made it clear that the transitions underway here were not without some pain.

The sense of distress wasn’t limited to dwellings of course.

So what is happening here?  First of all, I’ll stress again that there are many viable family farms along Route 13, similar to that seen in the first image.  There are also communities like Cape Charles that are undergoing a rebirth, capitalizing on their desirable location and the potential for a creative economy.

What else is happening?  You might want to check with these gulls.

What do they know that we don’t know?  That it wasn’t a good day to be a chicken around here.  This is factory farming at the state of the art. “Farming” is doing relatively well here, in the hands of Tyson and Perdue. But what about the small and family owned farms.  That is a different story according to Dave Burden, writing in the Shorekeeper.  There is significant tension between the factory farms and the smaller farmers. They do their business in very different ways.  While the factory farms do provide jobs, particularly in the processing plants, they don’t necessary support he kind of agrarian economy that has existed on the Eastern Shore for hundreds of years.

This is where issues of power and influence come to the fore.  I mentioned last week that our buddies in the House of Representatives are trying to gut the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.  In particular, they have singled out a few targets for their wrath, the most important one being action on global warming and climate science.  Also high on their target list, however, is also the planned clean up of the Chesapeake Bay.  You can read about their most recent actions to block the clean up of the Bay here. You’ll note that they claim that farmers will find the cost of cleaning up their act too high.  Here’s another view.

Saving the Bay will revitalize area fishing and the harvest of shell food. Saving the Bay will also support tourism, hunting, and encourage the growth of a more diverse economy by safeguarding the quality of life in the communities surrounding the Bay. Factory farmers will indeed have to clean up their act, as will state and local governments.  (They might look at what it took the clean up Massachusetts Bay.  Yes, there were costs, but there have already been enormous benefits.)  The alternative is a Chesapeake Bay with a growing number of what are called dead zones, areas in which oxygen is depleted and which will not support life.  You can see a map of those dead zones here.  Take a look.  Will our leaders respond to the reality of the Bay and/or suggest alternative approaches that might be amenable to all parties?  Or, will they continue to act out their rage and ignore the reality, on the ground and in the water?  We will soon see.  If they don’t, we’ll just be…