OAKLAND—— Phillip Edwards Jr. stands with his back to the Nansemond River, his eyes fixed on a massive combine that cuts a swath of brown earth.
It's early December and his calm demeanor belies an impending sense of urgency. The soybeans before him should have been harvested weeks ago.
The combine sputters exhaust as it pivots to spit its load into a truck bed. Edwards springs into action, climbing the bed and leveling a mound of soybeans with outstretched arms. He hops down as the combine pulls away and returns to the field.
"This is farming," he said. "There ain't nothing romantic to it; it's just about loading up and going."
The Nansemond River, like many waterways in the Chesapeake Bay, has a legacy of agriculture. From tobacco to peanuts, its watershed continues to meet the demands placed upon it.
Today that includes not only agriculture, but sanctuaries for rare birds, picturesque homes for the wealthy, hot spots for rockfish anglers and breezes on muggy summer days.
The Nansemond forms in Suffolk, where two small lakes, Meade and Kilby, converge. It twists and turns 23 miles before emptying into the James River west of the Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Bridge-Tunnel.
Its story is similar to many local waterways.
Once home to Native Americans, then explored by colonial settlers, the river became part of Virginia's thriving tobacco industry.
A bit player in the Revolutionary War, the river and its largest enclave, Suffolk, came under Union control during the Civil War.
About 50 years later a Pennsylvania man named Amedeo Obici opened a massive peanut processing plant in Suffolk. Nuts from Nansemond farmers soon were shipped around the world under the iconic image of Planter's Mr. Peanut. Meanwhile, the river provided an ample supply of seafood, including oysters, shad and sturgeon.
Much has changed.
Peanuts are no longer the area's dominant crop. Changes to federal legislation during the last 10 years prompted peanut processors to buy from growers in South America and other parts of the world, Edwards said. Hence the soybeans, a product he doesn't eat, and other crops, such as cotton and corn.
The shad and sturgeon have largely vanished — victims of overfishing, pollution and loss of habitat.
And the oyster population hangs by a thread; for example, residents of Hobson, a once thriving oyster community on the river's northern shore, shook their heads when asked recently if they knew anyone still in the trade.
The river, like many in the Chesapeake watershed, is in peril. Toxic chemicals called PCBs reside in its fish, and excessive nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, create algae blooms and dead zones.
The Nansemond's appearance, however, tends to hide its troubles.
A three-hour boat ride in November showed bountiful wetlands, more than 20 species of birds, including several bald eagles, and relatively sparse development.