Early in the morning, Farmer Washington mounted his horse and cantered off to inspect his farms. “Agriculture has ever been amongst the most favorite amusements of my life,” he wrote.
We know him as a soldier and a political leader. Without George Washington’s military and political leadership, the United States may not have become a free and independent nation. However, Washington look forward to the times when he could return to his home, Mount Vernon, and be a farmer, “under the shadow of my own Vine & my own Fig tree.”
George Washington owned thousands of acres of land. He continually searched for better farming methods. He experimented with fertilizers, using farm and fishery wastes, plaster of Paris, and mud from the bottom of the Potomac River. He developed a six-step method of crop rotation, hoping to renew Virginia’s soil. After many years of tobacco-growing and mismanagement, the soil had been depleted of nutrients. A practical man, Mr. Washington read books on agriculture and consulted with experts in Great Britain. He was one of the first Americans to use scientific methods to improve farm production.
Farming was necessary for George Washington. He had to feed and clothe his family as well as a large labor force consisting mostly of slaves. After the British passed the Stamp Act, a tax on documents and other printed material in the Colonies, in 1765, he chose to become less dependent on trade with British merchants. In his fields he grew a variety of grains and vegetables. A man of great energy, it was not unusual to see him in his shirt sleeves working alongside his field hands. He conducted experiments in his greenhouse. He kept a botanical garden, where he grew plants from all over the world. He improved the quality of his flocks and herds of animals to provide food and clothing for his household.
Creating order and beauty satisfied the former soldier. Making his property attractive as well as productive was important to him, “to see the work of one’s own hands, fostered by care and attention, rising to maturity in a beautiful display….” The same mind that planned military battles and guided the new United States found satisfaction in the farmer’s life.
Farming is hard work, and he worked hard to make ends meet. George and Martha Washington went to great expense hosting many guests at Mount Vernon, invited or unexpected. The war took him away from Mount Vernon for eight years, the Presidency for eight more. He would not sell or trade his slaves, so he kept more than he needed. The estate suffered from war, neglect, and bad weather. Although more successful than some Virginia farmers, his expenses often exceeded his income. He had other interests and investments that helped pay the bills.
Farmer Washington discussed his ideas about farming and agriculture in letters or with friends. He kept a journal of his farming activities. He never had an article or book published. He didn’t consider himself a scholar, a writer, or an agricultural expert. American farmers may never fully know how much they owe to the work of George Washington, farmer.
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