George Washington is best remembered for his unflinching leadership as the commander of the ragged, often unpaid and hungry Continental Army during the American Revolution. In a wide-ranging war fought against British regulars and as a guerrilla campaign on the western frontier, Washington directed the Colonial forces during the struggle to gain independence. Working with touchy French allies, Washington toiled to keep the coalition together until victory was won.
At the time, the mails were slow and communications were poor. Operating when there were no opinion polls or public relations firms, George Washington had to rely on his own knowledge and instincts for guidance as he fought one of the world’s most powerful empires. During the conflict, which probably never had the active support of much more than 35 percent of the population at any given time, Washington turned down the offer made by his disgruntled soldiers to make him America’s king or dictator. After independence had been won, Washington resigned as commander of the army in December 1783.
As the fractious, newly independent colonies stumbled through a period of economic and political uncertainty, Washington went to Philadelphia to attend the convention held from May to September 1787. After much debate and deliberation, the convention produced the United States Constitution. It has been said that the duties of the president were crafted by the members of the Constitutional Convention to fit the personality of George Washington. After serving as the nation’s first president, Washington voluntarily stepped down at the end of his second term. It was a move that stunned the leaders of other counties at a time when no ruler gave up power short of dying or being violently deposed.
For the Virginia surveyor who saw his hopes for a commission in the British Army dashed during the French and Indian War era, it was quite a record of accomplishment. George Washington’s military and political legacies have overshadowed his life-long work in agriculture and science. The 1752 death of his half-brother, Lawrence, propelled him into crop growing when he took over the management of Mt. Vernon, a plantation of 2, 126 acres. Although the farm was declining in fertility because tobacco growing depleted the soil, Washington discovered that he enjoyed farming. Quite happy in his new home, he eventually increased the size of the property to 8,000 acres, of which approximately 3,200 were under cultivation.
Around 1765, he reduced his tobacco acreage by switching to wheat and corn production. His crop yields were low by modern standards. Washington’s corn crop averaged only 15 bushels per acre. At a time when the sciences were in their infancy, Washington understood the value of scientific research. Using honest observation and experimentation, he tested over 60 crops for suitability and profitability. Washington slowly taught himself how to combat the soil exhaustion which had become a major problem in Virginia. Often rising at 4 am, he averaged 15 miles per day on horseback as he made the rounds of his farms.
Over time, he improved Mt. Vernon’s acreage as he experimented with fertilizer, animal manure and natural lime. Washington dredged river mud in a test to determine if it could be used as a fertilizer. He developed a sophisticated crop rotation sequence, planting grasses, clover and buckwheat to improve the soil. In a procedure unusual for the time, Washington left the areas along the creek banks in pasture and trees to prevent soil erosion.
Washington’s interest in the production of fruits and flowers led him to enlarge the gardens and orchard as he sought increased yields. His diverse farming operations produced quality hogs, chickens, turkeys, swans, ducks and geese. The pastures supported 600 sheep, but Washington had little luck with his cattle raising endeavors. He was an excellent horseman, a devoted breeder and trainer of horses. He had 130 of them on his farms, keeping his favorites until they died of old age.
We now know that the soil of the region is best suited to corn, soybeans, mixed hay and small grains. Washington had to learn by experimentation because the agricultural practices imported from England often failed in the harsher climate of Virginia. In England’s cooler, temperate climate, wool producers got 11 pounds of wool per sheep. Following the same procedures, Washington was lucky to obtain three pounds. As he tried out new crops, the land often dealt him disappointing setbacks. When Washington was away from Mt. Vernon, there was another problem. His unthinking overseers often let much of what he had accomplished fall by the wayside.
As Washington doggedly worked to expand his knowledge, he constantly sought advice from the leading scientists of the age, writing almost every evening after the conclusion of the day’s labor. Being a visionary, Washington thought America could become “the storehouse and granary for the world.” In a 1794 letter he wrote “I know of no pursuit in which real and important services can be rendered to any country than by improving its agriculture, the breed of useful animals and other branches of a husbandman’s cares.”
Unfortunately, few others in Virginia seemed to share Washington’s thirst for increasing knowledge and preserving farm productivity. As a consequence, between 1817 and 1830, the value of Virginia’s farm land fell from $207 million to $90 million. Between the American Revolution and 1850, approximately one million Virginians moved west as a result of the cycle of land ruination that Washington worked to halt. By the time of the 1860 census, Virginia had fallen from first place in the population rankings to seventh. For too many farmers, the standard practice was to clear land, grow crops until the soil gave out and then move further west to begin the cycle over again.
It would be a hundred years before many of the agricultural practices tested so painstakingly by George Washington would become widely accepted by America’s farming community. Because he appreciated scientific analysis, Washington probably considered his contributions to the development of agricultural knowledge to be as significant as his military and political achievements.