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George Washington, the farmer

Laura Dean Bennett
Staff Writer  
“I’d rather be on my farm than be emperor of the world.”
“Agriculture is the most healthful, most useful and most noble employment of man.”
“In short I shall begrudge no reasonable expence that will contribute to the improvement and neatness of my farms – for nothing pleases me better than to see them in good order, and everything trim, handsome, and thriving about them.”
~ Quotes from
George Washington
It may come as a surprise to those of us who think of him as the “Father of Our Country,” but George Washington thought of himself as first and foremost, a farmer.

Of course, Washington’s public life as a soldier, an officer in the Continental Army and as the first president of the United States, is documented in public records.

But, thank goodness, we have inherited a treasure trove of his letters, notebooks, diaries, sketches and drawings which give us a detailed account of his personal life and his interests and his love for his own land. 

His understanding of soil productivity, crop rotation, creative farming techniques and innovative tools helped elevate the science of agriculture in our young nation.

Mount Vernon was originally called Little Hunting Creek Plantation. It was originally owned by John Washington, George’s great-grandfather. George Washington inherited Mount Vernon in 1761. 

Mount Vernon encompassed an 8,000-acre property with five working farms – Mansion House, River, Muddy Hole, Dogue Run and Union. 

Washington read the latest scientific studies on agriculture and used a variety of methods of fertilization, crop rotation and soil conservation plans.

Over the years, Washington tried a variety of fertilizers – manure from cows, pigs, sheep, horses, green manure, creek mud, fish heads, marl (lime-rich mud), green crops plowed under, and mud from the Potomac River. 

Records show that Washington cultivated, or at least attempted to raise, well over 60 different field crops. 

In his “Notes & Observations” for 1785-86, he mentions successfully planting barley, buckwheat, clover, corn, carrots, cabbage, flax, millet, oats, orchard grass, pumpkins, rye, spelt, turnips, timothy, wheat and fruit orchards. 

He also raised alfalfa, chicory, burnet, sainfoin, ryegrass, hop clover, tick trefoil, guinea grass, hemp, Jerusalem artichoke, Siberian melilot (a sweet clover), field peas, potatoes and flax for weaving into linen.  

Experimentation with these crops was one of his chief delights.

Washington also operated a successful fishery. 

Early in his diaries, Washington talked about tobacco as Mt. Vernon’s original cash crop – shipped to England each year in exchange for goods that were not available in America. 

But Washington discovered that – while lucrative – tobacco, year after year, took a serious toll on the soil’s nutrients. 
By 1766, he made it known that he raised no tobacco at all except at Dogue Run, River Farm and Union Farm, and he would raise little or no tobacco at all on the Potomac.

Many of Washington’s experiments in agronomy were eventually repeated by 20th century agronomists. 

Washington invented a “barrel plow” which was a wooden barrel with holes drilled into it to release the seeds as the barrel turned behind the plow. 

One of the most remarkable buildings at Mt. Vernon is Washington’s 16-sided threshing barn. 

It was built so that horses trampled wheat stalks on the upper level and the grain fell onto the lower level through spaces in the floor. This was a great improvement over doing the threshing by hand. 

When timber for building rail fences became scarce, Washington turned to using trees as fences and shrubs as hedges. 

Washington shared Thom-as Jefferson’s interest in the innovation of all sorts of mechanical improvements for agriculture. They went together to visit the farm of Samuel Powell, near Philadelphia, in 1791 to see the operation of a new threshing machine. 

Five years later, Jefferson built his own thresher, and Washington was enthusiastic about it.  

When the farms of the Mount Vernon estate were inventoried in 1800, the listing for equipment at the River Farm included one threshing machine, eight plows, 10 harrows, three ox carts, a horse cart, 20 weeding hoes, eight axes, two mortising axes, six mattocks, two spades, three shovels, eight rakes with iron teeth, three mauling wedges, a pair of steelyards and a flax rake.  

Equipment at Dogue Run included Dutch fans, double moldboard plows, cultivators, wheat and corn drills, and a machine for gathering clover seed.

Washington was always fascinated by plows. His favorite was a Rotheram patent plow (drawn by oxen or horses) made in Yorkshire. 

Interestingly, like a lot of our farmers today who despair of getting parts for their old tractors, Washington often complained that replacement parts for the old Rotheram were almost impossible to get. 

Livestock breeding was another of Washington’s interests.

He raised sheep for wool and meat and cattle for meat and to serve as oxen. 

At one point, Washington considered the dairy business, with an eye to selling milk to nearby Alexandria, Georgetown and the Federal City.  

His swine ran loose in fenced woodlands until it was time to select the best for fattening in pens. 

Washington also raised chickens, ducks and geese, but the flocks weren’t large, after all, this was a time when wild fowl were abundant.

In less than three years after leaving the office of the presidency, Washington had made great strides in improving his farms. 

Tragically, he died at age 67, on December 14, 1799.

He had taken to bed just two days after he had ridden out to inspect the fields in the cold and snow. 

A short time before his death, Washington had been hard at work on future plans for his farms. 

He’d laid out extensive plans for crop rotation, the handling of pasturelands and meadows and use of manure, with specific mention of penning cattle and sheep on regularly shifted temporary enclosures to fertilize the land. 

In 1834, a citizen of Fairfax County, signing himself as “F,” wrote a letter to the editor of the Farmers’ Register, decrying the condition of President Washington’s beloved farms.  

He wrote, “Any, curious to mark the operation of time upon human affairs, would find much for contemplation by riding through the extensive domains of the late General Washington. 

“A more widespread and perfect agricultural ruin could not be imagined; yet the monuments of the great mind that once ruled, are seen throughout.  

“The ruins of capacious barns, and long extended hedges, seem proudly to boast that their master looked to the future.”

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