First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.

How about first in farming?

Id love to add that label to George Washington, if only I could revise and extend the famousquote from theeulogydeliveredin 1799byLight-Horse Harry Lee.

As we approach Presidents Day on Monday, Feb. 18and Washingtons ownbirthdayon Feb. 22mythoughts turn to this Founding Father. He was possibly the greatest American inourhistory. He helped the United States win its independence from Great Britain and thenheserved two terms as our first president.

Biographers have hailed him as everything froma modern Cincinnatus (Garry Wills) to His Excellency (Joseph J. Ellis)to The Indispensible Man (James Thomas Flexner).

I like to think of him as ourFounding Farmer.

Thats partly because Im a farmer, too.GeorgeWashington even grew alfalfa, which is what Iraisehere in the southeastern corner ofwait for itthe state of Washington.

Back in the 18th century,agriculturewas Americas top economic activity. YetWashington stood out as a pioneer.

At firsthe grew tobacco, asdidmanyof his fellowVirginians. Yet he also saw how tobacco depletes the soil. Rather than letting fields deteriorate and moving onto other pasturesa standard practice among tobacco growers back thenWashingtonbecame an early adopter of compost. He alsobegan to use alfalfain his seven-crop rotation plan.

This was an innovation, and it worked.Alfalfa injected nitrogen into the soil, keeping it healthy for future seasons. Washington couldnt have explained the chemistry, but hesawthe result. He was a sustainable farmer before sustainable farming was cool.

Eventually, Washington moved into grains. Here, too, he adopted novel techniques. Tourists at Mount Vernon todaycan visit a reconstruction of his 16-sidedtreading barn, a labor-saving machine that allowedhimto move away from threshing wheat by hand. Instead, horses walkedin circles and stompedthe wheat, whose seeds then fell through floorboard slats and into a granary.

Washington also kept extensive records. Historians know a lot about what he grew and where he grew it, but Washington wasnt thinking about posterity. He studied his results, always trying to learn as much as possible about the performance of crops and fields. Other farmers did this as well, but Washington was among theearliest to expose himself to the rigor of analysis. He was always trying to improve.

These same records also tell us abouthis exploitationof other people.At leastWashingtoncame to understandthe injustice ofslavery. His will granted freedom to the African Americans he held in bondagea moral advance that too few of his countrymen followed.

Ivevisited Mount Vernonseveral times over the years. Once, early in the morning, I hada chanceto walk inside histomb, which is normally behind a closed gate. I set my hand on his marble sarcophagusand stood there insilentawe.

I wish I could have told him how much he meant to meas a fellow farmer.Id also want him to knowhow far weve come with mechanization,genetics, and global trade.The changes would amaze him. He might marvel most of all atourability to sell what we grow tocustomersaroundthe world. TheDeclaration of Independence, after all, complains about the tyranny of cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world.

If he were around now, hed probably still farm.I can almost picture himdrivinga combine harvesteracrossa field of genetically modified corn or soybeans.Hed track his progress by GPS, gathering data for review later. Hed listen to the radio, hopeful aboutcommoditypricesandworried aboutour trade war with China.Instead of wearing a tri-corner hat, hed sport a John Deere baseball cap.

Behind it all,our Founding Farmer would recognize a few things that farmers share, no matter when they live: the desire for new technology, the need for steady markets, and a commitment to agricultural progress.

This column first appeared Feb 13 atAgri-Pulse.