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George Washington, The Farmer

By: Mark Bushman, NRCS

Photo of farm field with quote from George Washington

February 22, 2017 - As we celebrate President’s Day this month, let’s take a moment to look at one of our Founding Father’s greatest contributions, one that has often gone overlooked.

George Washington is best known for a variety of roles in the shaping of our country, from being the Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, to being the first President of the United States.

However, one of his proudest personal achievements was being regarded as an accomplished farmer by his peers and colleagues. While he is most commonly referred to as “The Father of our Country,” he could also be called the “Father of American Agriculture.” Those closest to him believed Washington was at his happiest working his lands and conducting agricultural experiments.

Washington was primarily a tobacco farmer, but eventually diversified into growing wheat, corn, carrots, cabbage, and a variety of other crops. He also used the results to best determine what would grow best in the soil on the land.

Washington was a firm believer in the value of compost (or organic fertilizer as it is called today) to enrich the soil even further and get better use from it. At that time, not everyone used compost, and Washington went to great lengths to explain and prove how composting increased more productivity over time. He also experimented with a 7-year crop rotation plan. His planting methods, when combined with the compost practices, exponentially improved the long-term productivity of his land, all of which are the pillars of soil health that are used today.

In numerous diaries, essays, and speeches, Washington encouraged American farmers to enrich their soil instead of wearing it out. So it’s fair to say he was one of the first recognized conservationists in the country. He thought permanent settlement rather than continuous migration was better for the land and better for society. He believed that agriculture was the first and most important occupation of the new Nation and a way for America to establish itself in the world.

In an address to Congress, Washington stressed the importance of agriculture and farming in relation to the survival of the country:

“It will not be doubted that with reference either to individual or national welfare, agriculture is of primary importance. In proportion as nations advance in population and other circumstances of maturity this truth becomes more apparent, and renders the cultivation of the soil more and more an object of public patronage.”

Washington constantly tried to improve his farming, and when he did, he did it as much for America as for himself. He wanted to make America the granary of the world, and when he made improvements on his farm, he hoped they would benefit all of his countrymen. He also encouraged wealthier landowners to experiment different practices on their lands. His reasoning was that wealthy landowners, unlike struggling farmers, could absorb the risks that come with perfecting new agricultural methods. Fortunately, there were more successes than failures, and adoption of those more successful conservation farming techniques resulted in more efficient and sustainable uses of soil and water, which contributed to increasing farmers' productivity as well as their incomes.

Washington’s accomplishments in the field of agriculture were so highly respected that he was elected to honorary membership in the Philadelphia Society for the Promotion of Agriculture, the first American organization devoted to agricultural improvement. His correspondence with revered British agriculturalists such as Arthur Young, James Anderson, and John Sinclair earned him honorary membership in the English Board of Agriculture, an honor bestowed on very few foreigners at the time.

Fortunately for us, Washington kept detailed notes on virtually every aspect of his life, including those of his successes (and failures) in his agriculture. His diaries, essays, and letters of correspondence have not only shown his importance and influence on American military and political history, but arguably just as important, the young nation’s agricultural advancement. Although it would be another 60 years before Abraham Lincoln would create the United States Department of Agriculture, Washington, and those who worked with him, should be credited with the beginning of successful American farming.