“First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”
How about “first in farming”?
I’d love to add that label to George Washington, if only I could revise and extend the famous quote from the eulogy delivered in 1799 by “Light-Horse” Harry Lee.
As we approach Presidents Day on Monday, Feb. 18—and Washington’s own birthday on Feb. 22—my thoughts turn to this Founding Father. He was possibly the greatest American in our history. He helped the United States win its independence from Great Britain and then he served two terms as our first president.
Biographers have hailed him as everything from a modern “Cincinnatus” (Garry Wills) to “His Excellency” (Joseph J. Ellis) to “The Indispensible Man” (James Thomas Flexner).
I like to think of him as our Founding Farmer.
That’s partly because I’m a farmer, too. George Washington even grew alfalfa, which is what I raise here in the southeastern corner of—wait for it—the state of Washington.
Back in the 18th century, agriculture was America’s top economic activity. Yet Washington stood out as a pioneer.
At first he grew tobacco, as did many of his fellow Virginians. Yet he also saw how tobacco depletes the soil. Rather than letting fields deteriorate and moving on to other pastures—a standard practice among tobacco growers back then—Washington became an early adopter of compost. He also began to use alfalfa in 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 couldn’t have explained the chemistry, but he saw the 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 today can visit a reconstruction of his 16-sided treading barn, a labor-saving machine that allowed him to move away from threshing wheat by hand. Instead, horses walked in circles and stomped the 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 wasn’t 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 the earliest to expose himself to the rigor of analysis. He was always trying to improve.
These same records also tell us about his exploitation of other people. At least Washington came to understand the injustice of slavery. His will granted freedom to the African Americans he held in bondage—a moral advance that too few of his countrymen followed.
I’ve visited Mount Vernon several times over the years. Once, early in the morning, I had a chance to walk inside his tomb, which is normally behind a closed gate. I set my hand on his marble sarcophagus and stood there in silent awe.
I wish I could have told him how much he meant to me as a fellow farmer. I’d also want him to know how far we’ve come with mechanization, genetics, and global trade. The changes would amaze him. He might marvel most of all at our ability to sell what we grow to customers around the world. The Declaration of Independence, after all, complains about the tyranny of “cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world.”
If he were around now, he’d probably still farm. I can almost picture him driving a combine harvester across a field of genetically modified corn or soybeans. He’d track his progress by GPS, gathering data for review later. He’d listen to the radio, hopeful about commodity prices and worried about our trade war with China. Instead of wearing a tri-corner hat, he’d 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 at Agri-Pulse.