Published June 4, 2024

Two years into a multi-institutional collaboration documenting changes in communities, climate, and foodways on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, our project team returned to Charlottesville from a six-day visit at the end of April with 26 interviews. 

Among the 30 people we talked to were migrant farmworkers, restaurant and small business owners, members of the Haitian Creole community, poultry processing plant workers, owners of beloved ice cream and coffee establishments, farmers (including of the famous Hayman sweet potatoes!), sustainable foodways advocates, and shellfish titans. We recorded our conversations in fields, farm stands, kitchens, and on docks from Cape Charles to Chincoteague to Tangier.

The interviews, photos, and video from this ongoing oral history project, titled “Eastern Shore Foodways, Community & Climate,” will be archived with the Eastern Shore of Virginia Regional Library & Heritage Center, the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program (SPOHP) at the University of Florida, and the Virginia Folklife Program.

“This field trip documented a small slice of what all our narrators—regardless of background—agreed is a critical moment for the region,” said Jessica Taylor, a key project leader and associate professor of history at Virginia Tech (VT). 

This oral history project is part of a multi-year initiative of the Virginia Folklife Program to produce new cultural documentation on the Eastern Shore in collaboration with local communities and in support of concurrent climate research. 

Ten researchers participated in this year’s trip: Jessica, Mason Keyser (VT graduate student), Jordan Hebert (VT undergraduate), Lincoln Lewis (UVA PhD student and Climate Equity Fellow), Diana Rodriguez-Allende (SPOHP graduate student), Anna Hamilton and Deborah Hendrix (SPOHP staff), Lauren Francis (With Good Reason staff) and Virginia Folklife staff Katy Clune and Pat Jarrett.

This trip followed a smaller collaboration in April 2023, and builds on Taylor’s work establishing the Tidewater Mainstreet Project at SPOHP. This collection, available online through the University of Florida Digital Collections, has been supported by community organizations across Eastern Virginia for over a decade and currently preserves over 200 interviews. 

“The people of the Eastern Shore come from every imaginable walk of life, and they share a beautiful and deeply complicated landscape,” trip researcher Mason Keyser shared. “By listening to their stories, I was humbled by the complexity of their lives and their determination to make the most out of uncertain futures.”

One thing is certain for the future of the region: change. 

The rate of sea-level rise in coastal Virginia is among the highest in the United States, with the city of Norfolk at similar risk levels as Miami and New Orleans. As the Chesapeake Bay warms, its entire food web (and related economy) is at risk. By 2060, roughly 14% of state-maintained roads on the Eastern Shore are expected to be under three feet of water. By 2100, NOAA has predicted sea rise of seven feet at Sewells Point, Norfolk.

“I need to build something that’s going to be environmentally sustainable, socially, economically—all of those things,” said Thelonius Cook, owner of Mighty Thundercloud Edible Forest, a seven acre farm in Northampton County. “It’s building a system that’s going to be resilient, to be able to respond to those extreme weather events… That’s how I look at it: maintaining these seven acres as an oasis that will hopefully be able to withstand and survive.”

For the second year, the team interviewed people from Spanish-speaking communities, from business owners to migrant workers. While the overall population in Northampton and Accomack Counties on the Eastern Shore declined slightly between the 2020 and 2010 census, the Latinx population is increasing

“As floods and fires, droughts and erosion, and the myriad other impacts of a warming world wreak greater havoc, some of the answers to the crisis won’t be found in engineering or science, but in the cultural fabric that binds us together.”

Grist Magazine (this March 2024 article profiles folklorists working at the intersection of climate and culture in Louisiana, West Virginia, and Arizona)

One of the interviewees was Vinicio Diaz, who immigrated to the shore more than two decades ago from Guatemala. He began working in the tomato fields, then chicken processing, and construction. In 2020, he took over Doughty’s Market in Melfa and opened Tienda Emmanuel on a busy intersection on Route 13.

Tienda Emmanuel is one of the few places that opens at 6am to sell hot breakfasts to workers, in addition to sandwiches, burgers, burritos, tortas, tacos, freshly cut bottom round beef (for carne asada), and Central American groceries and fresh produce. 

Vinicio has found success on the Eastern Shore, but he knows how hard it is to make a good living here—his own son is already planning to leave. 

“I think the Eastern Shore is one of the richest places of Virginia. We have people who can plant tomatoes, beans, who can plant anything. But I don’t think they get what they deserve for what they do,” Vinicio said. “If nobody was working hard here, I don’t think we’d have food—like chickens—in other places.”

People from Mexico, Haiti, Vietnam, and many other countries will continue to shape life on the Eastern Shore, not just through their labor but through the communities they build in and beyond the region.

Blue colors represent counties that will lose land to the ocean. Red/purple colors represent counties that will see increased migration, with the shade proportional to the increase. Source: Ars Technica

Impacts from climate change will cause a continued outward migration and a shift in longtime practices—gardening, cooking, faith, working the water—for those who choose to stay. In the coming years, connecting across cultural communities will be increasingly important in helping people work together to address challenges and give insights into what cultural landscapes and traditions are at risk. 

There is a sense of urgency in understanding the tenor of Eastern Shore folklife in 2024. How can Virginia Folklife help local communities support cultural sustainability?

For all these reasons, Katy chose the region as a focus area for Virginia Folklife in the coming years when she began work as state folklorist in 2022. This work is designed to unfold slowly, iteratively, and to build relationships with local people and organizations across several years.

“I wanted to develop a project that could begin small, benefit from the input of many partners, and ultimately be shaped by and serve local constituents,” she explained. “I also wanted to connect our work to the research of UVA’s Environmental Resilience Institute.

Katy and Jessica’s collaboration began when the institute’s Eastern Shore of Virginia Climate Equity Project invited them to participate in a public workshop to demonstrate how oral histories and storytelling can enliven scientific data and engage audiences.

Funded by a National Science Foundation grant, the Climate Equity Project is addressing inequity and information gaps concerning climate change adaptation for coastal residents of Virginia’s Eastern Shore. This research will yield a set of powerful tools for policy makers responding to climate change that center the needs and aspirations of historically underserved—and underrepresented—populations on the Shore.

“The ESVA Climate Equity Project is so grateful to be working in partnership with this effort,” said Barbara Brown Wilson, ESVA Climate Equity Project Co-Lead and Associate Professor at UVA. “Storytelling is one of the most important guides to understand not only where people have come from, but also what matters to them, and the stories shared in this effort serve as a part of the compass orienting the research at every stage.”

Trip summary video produced by the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program (SPOHP) at the University of Florida

This summer, with the help of a team of student interns at Virginia Folklife, VT, and SPOHP, the interviews completed to date will be analyzed and published as a StoryMap. The project team will also offer this interactive map and a raw dataset to UVA’s Eastern Shore of Virginia Climate Equity Project as a component of their public output. 

Future public programs include an exhibition produced for the Eastern Shore Public Library and a special Earth Day 2025 episode of Virginia Humanities’ With Good Reason radio show. A supporter of this work since 2023, Associate Producer Lauren Francis sees the benefits of returning year after year to the Shore as the project develops.  

“I am grateful that Katy and Jessica understand the significance and relevance of involving With Good Reason in this oral history project,” Lauren said. “I love field audio production—the chance to truly be in a place, learning its sounds before pressing ‘record.’ Being changed by it.”

Sweet potato farmer George Maddox, photographed near one of the Farmall tractors on his Hallwood property. Photo by Pat Jarrett/Virginia Humanities

Importantly, as these initial public products are shared, how interviewees and local audiences react will inform the shape of any future research and programming.

In the meantime, Virginia Folklife is also supporting the documentary photo exhibition Snapshot: Climate produced by Southern Cultures at the Barrier Islands Center (on view now through July 25, with a public opening reception on Thursday, June 13). In conjunction with this exhibition, there is an ongoing public call for photos that tell the story of climate impacts. 

“This trip with Virginia Folklife was unlike anything I experienced in undergrad,” trip researcher Jordan Hebert shared. “It was an incredible testament to the power of collaboration: Everyone’s distinct strengths allowed the team to better connect with the people of the area and create a broad network of connections on the Eastern Shore.”

When it comes to integrating humanities into climate change research, many partners make light(er) work.

This trip was funded by the Virginia Folklife Program at Virginia Humanities, the Department of History at Virginia Tech, and the University of Florida’s Samuel Proctor Oral History Program. Additional funding in support of interviews on Tangier was provided by UVA’s Center for Cultural Landscapes.