Agriculture has been a mainstay of the Dorchester County economy and culture since the first European settlers stepped ashore in the 1600s, dragged a hoe through the rich soil and planted their first crops. Even before their arrival, Native Americans had cleared trees and planted maize, beans and squash. The region’s long growing season and the land’s receptiveness to a diversity of plants sustains Dorchester’s place as an important agrarian center. Even under continued pressure to accommodate a rising population and increased demands for more development, agriculture remains a healthy industry in Dorchester County. In recent years, the number of farms has actually increased and 34 percent of the county’s total acreage is committed to agriculture.
Colonial farmers initially turned to tobacco as a cash crop and grew corn, grain and vegetables and raised small herds of cattle for their own sustenance. During the 18th century, grain production became so widespread throughout the region that the Eastern Shore was described as the “breadbasket of the American Revolution.” By the late 1800s, a handful of entrepreneurs like Civil War veteran Col. James Wallace recognized that if they assembled canneries to process locally harvested food and took advantage of the area’s many waterways for shipping, vast markets could bring a new era of prosperity to Dorchester. Wallace, who is credited with building the Eastern Shore’s first cannery in Cambridge, was right. Well past mid-1900s, canneries operated throughout Dorchester County. From 1870 to 1960, at least 187 canneries were built throughout the county. Seasonal employees, many from outside the county, flocked to Dorchester to help process fruits, vegetables and seafood for buyers in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Norfolk and New York.
Dorchester’s story of canneries and packing houses is dominated by the Phillips Packing Company, a hugely successful enterprise started by three local men in 1902. Overshadowing his partners, the colorful Col. Albanus Phillips (he received the honorary title from friend and fellow Dorchester native Gov. Emerson Harrington for serving on the state Board of Public Works) helped make the company an international success. Admiral Richard Byrd took Phillips canned food on his Antarctic explorations. In 1939, the company was marketing more than 60 kinds of canned goods. By 1951, the packing house giant reported $21 million in sales. The phenomenal reign of the Phillips Packing Company ended in 1957 when the company, facing competition and slumping sales, was sold.
Poultry production, livestock and field crops make up the biggest shares of agriculture underway in Dorchester today. Chicken houses, which grow millions of birds for the world’s broiler market, are found throughout the county and are easily identified by their long and narrow, single-story construction. While most of the corn and soybeans grown are destined as animal feed, Dorchester farmers continue to diversify by raising wheat, barley, sweet corn, peas, watermelon, potatoes, pumpkins, peppers and spinach.