Playing in the Dirt

Playing in the Dirt

The Barnes family legacy lives on in a Virginia peanut farm

Words by M.C. Smith

When Elisha Barnes says that he learned how to farm around the same time he learned how to walk, he isn’t exaggerating. 

“When we were really small, not big enough to actually hold a hoe in our hands, our father would put us up ahead of our mother on the row that she was chopping to help pull weeds, to make her load easier. We were out in the field with Mom and Dad, pulling weeds and working. And the moment we got big and strong enough to hold a hoe, then we all were responsible for carrying a row, right along with everybody else.”

For Barnes, a descendant of sharecroppers and a fourth-generation peanut farmer in Capron, Virginia in Southampton County, his work as a farmer is living history. He tills the soil of his five-acre field alone by tractor, weeds the rows with nothing more than careful skill and a hoe, because that is how his father farmed the land. 

“There was a sense of pride for my father to teach me how to do this. Out of my brothers and sisters, I’m the one that really enjoyed playing in the dirt. And that’s what I call it—playing in the dirt.”

At the heart of Barnes’ traditional farming process, and perhaps what he is most well-known for, is the method he uses for drying peanuts, called “shocking.”

With this method, after digging the peanuts up, the farmer would traditionally come back with a pitchfork and shake the dirt out of each plant, row by row, though Barnes says they now have mechanical diggers for this part of the process. Once the plants are out of the ground, holes are dug in each row and a wooden pole is placed and packed tightly into each hole. The peanut vines are then wrapped and mounted vertically on each pole to dry, or shock, in the sun for several weeks, which produces a uniquely sweet peanut. 

At one time, shocking was a standard process for peanut farmers, especially in Southampton County. But as technological advances became more widely available to farmers, this labor-intensive process became less common. Today, Elisha Barnes is the only farmer, to his knowledge, who still practices the traditional method of shocking his crop.

It was this realization, that he was the only farmer still growing and curing peanuts this way, that led Barnes to understand how unique his peanuts are. Barnes’ search for someone to help sell his crop eventually led him to the Hubbard Peanut Company, or Hubs, a company rooted in Virginia with a deep love for the state’s long agricultural relationship and history with the crop. Today, Hubs sells Barnes’ crop under the moniker “Single Origin Redskins.” It has become one of its most popular products. 

Marshall Rabil, director of sales and marketing at Hubs, was fascinated by Barnes' process, but what was most important to him was his story and what it meant to Southampton County. 

“Really, it’s about preserving the history and the culture of the way we used to do things, what the landscape around here looked like when we had all these peanuts that were shocked.”

Barnes agrees. For him, one of the most rewarding parts of his work has been how the community has, as he puts it, “wrapped itself around me so wonderfully.” For many people, seeing peanuts shocking in the sun reminds them of their own history, their family, in the same way it reminds Barnes of his. He described an experience he had while shocking peanuts in the field one day. A car screeched to a stop in the middle of the road. A young lady stepped out and asked Barnes if she could bring her grandmother by the field.

“So she went and got this little short, completely white-haired lady. The woman came in the field, saw those shocked peanuts, and broke down and cried. She said she had not seen anything like that in so long. That was her childhood, and it took her back to a time that was real sweet and peaceful for her.” 

For Barnes, this process also brings him back to a time that is sweet and peaceful. It is impossible for him to talk about his work as a farmer without mentioning his father, his mother, and his brothers and sisters.

Barnes knows that the way he runs his farm is difficult, that the labor is long and hard and hot underneath the sun. But this process is his way of life.

“I want to farm the way that I know, as long as I’m able. It preserves the history of where I come from. It is my history, it’s the history of the landscape of Southampton County at the turn of the century. It’s a passion.”

Barnes doesn’t consider what he’s doing to be work. He considers it merely “playing in the dirt.”