George Washington, Our First Farmer-President

Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Many stories have been written about George Washing­ton’s public career as statesman and soldier. Quite a few authors have told of his private life; some of his work as a surveyor. Several hinted at his experiments in agriculture. But few knew him as a man in love with the soil.

This, therefore, is being written to reveal a little known but important aspect of his life and to give it the attention it deserves.

Washington’s enthusiasm for agriculture was not the mere whim of a middle-aged, financially independent man who buys a farm as a hobby and tries his hand at the costly experiment of cultivation. Quite the contrary. He was born on a plantation (farms were called plantations during the colonial period) and reared in the country. Until adolescence, perhaps even later, he had never visited a “large city.”


Man of the Soil

In writing to Arthur Young, the foremost scientific farmer of his day (1788), editor of Annals of Agriculture and author of many books, Washington penned: “The more I am acquainted with agricultural affairs, the better I am pleased with them; insomuch, that I can nowhere find so great satisfaction as those innocent and useful pursuits. In indulging these feelings I am led to reflect how much more delightful to an undebauched mind is the task of mak­ing improvements on the earth than all the vain glory which can be acquired from ravaging it, by the most uninterrupted career of conquests.”

On another occasion he wrote to the same friend: “I think with you that the life of a husbandman is the most delectable. It is honorable and amusing and, with judicious management, it is profitable. To see plants rise from the earth and flourish by the superior skill and bounty of the laborer, fills a contemplative mind with ideas which are more easy to be conceived than expressed.”



Before he tried agriculture, Washington was a surveyor and his work still stands, Mount Vernon being one of his outstanding efforts.

Amid long and trying years he constantly looked for­ward to the day when he could lay down his burden and retire to the peace and freedom of Mount Vernon to take up the task of farming.

Like many modern farmers of today, he was not content to vegetate, to stand by while his crops failed. Nor was he content with little or no progress. In today’s term, he was an agriculturist. One of the first Americans to experiment with soils, Washington was always alert for better methods and more than willing to take any amount of time and trouble to find the best fertilizer, the best way to avoid plant diseases, the best methods of cultivation. Once he declared: “I have little patience with those content to tread the ruts their fathers trod.”



Over the years George Washington acquired several hundred acres of land with funds he earned from survey­ing and made purchases from money he inherited.

It is evident that quite early in life he developed “land hunger,” an appetite common to Virginians of his day. It was a desire inherited from their English ancestry.

After his marriage to Martha, who was not quite 27 years of age, George fashioned himself as “a young groom and father.” He stood six feet two inches tall, towering above most men of his day, and weighed about 175 pounds.

Washington took great pains to learn about any subject in which he had the slightest interest, and agriculture, for which he had more than a passing fancy, involved a lot of his study time.

Hardly was he settled down to serious farming when he ordered “the best System now extant of Agriculture” from England.

Among his papers are preserved long and detailed notes laboriously taken from the outstanding works of his day. He was most methodical about note keeping, which makes him an excellent subject for today’s historians.


Farm Researcher

An American farmer of today who has a problem can solve it by writing to the nearest government experiment station or a good farm publication, consulting with his county agricultural agent or his state agricultural college, or even the United States Department of Agriculture.

In Washington’s day none of these existed; in fact, even the Philadelphia Society for the promotion of Agriculture was not founded until 1785.

In his later years, Farmer Washington, as he was often respectfully called, did write to foreign specialists in agriculture, but they were Englishmen and unfamiliar with American soils and climate. As a result, whatever Washington wished to know about agriculture or practical farming, he had to discover for himself. This, no doubt, accounts for his conducting experiments like “planting a few oats to see if they would stand the winter.”

But as a tiller of the soil, he realized quite early in his career that a crop like tobacco was poorly adapted to Mount Vernon soil. Also he realized the disadvantage of tobacco culture because much land could be ruined by rais­ing it. So he stopped growing tobacco and began experimenting with grain.

For a time he relied chiefly on grain for his income … exporting it, milling it into flour or distilling it into whiskey, an item that served colonial Americans in many ways.

He gained much fame for his wheat, especially in the West Indies. When his barrels of flour arrived there marked with his name and address, they were immediately accepted by the islanders.

He also experimented with lucerne, now known as al­falfa. His success was not large, but he did raise a sizable field of it in 1798. Here, again, the Mount Vernon soil was not conducive to its growth. And about this time he decided com wasn’t a good crop for his land either but he needed it for his hogs.

In 1760 he sowed clover, rye, grass, trefoil and timothy; also “spelt,” a species of wheat. None was known to Virginia agriculture at that time. And that same year he recorded in his diary an interesting experiment with fertilizer:

“Mixed my composts in a box with the compartments in the following manner, viz., No. 1 is three pecks of earth brought from below the hill out of the 46-acre field without mixture. No. 2 is two pecks of sand earth and one of marle taken out of said field, which marle seemed a little inclined to sand. No. 3 has two pecks of sand earth and one of river sand … ” and so on and on through No. 10. Three weeks later he inspected the boxes to see which mixture gave the best results.

“The aim of farmers in this country (if they can be called farmers).” wrote Washington in 1791, “is not to make the most they can from the land, which is or has been cheap, but the most of labour which is dear.”


Soil Conservationist

After the war when he could finally return to “his farm,” he realized something had to be done to conserve the soil. He felt the use of manure was important, but it was hard to come by and, of course, commercial fertilizers were unheard of at that time. He started by planting clover.

Spring and summer of 1785 was bad for the crops and they suffered from the drought. Like all farmers he inspected the sky for storm clouds.

He tried Eastern Shore peas because they were supposed to strengthen the land and also planted rib grass, Silberian wheat, rye, oats and carrots.

His writings began to show interesting comments on the matter of crop rotation.

Another experiment was planting com in rows about ten feet wide with potatoes, carrots and peas in between.

His experimental notes show that corn ought to be planted no later than May 15, preferably by the tenth and even as early as the first.

Through it all his mind was constantly searching for new ways to conserve and restore his farmland. He hoarded manure like a ’49er hoarded gold.


Farm Machinist

As we know from colonial history, the plows of that day were cumbersome and worked poorly. Washington fitted a two-eyed plow instead of a duck-bill plow and tried it out, using his carriage horses for pulling. It was a failure. Next day he spent most of his time “making a new plow of my own invention and found she answered very well.”

Much could be written about his crops and the various measures he employed, his successes and failures, but this would lead you to think of Washington solely as a crop farmer. However, this was only one aspect of farming in which he had an interest.



He was also a stockman. From his diaries and other papers handed down over the years, we learn that Washington paid much attention to his horses. But he also raised sheep, deer, turkeys, hogs, swan, cattle and geese.

However, during his long absences from home his sheep suffered badly, for sheep require skilled care that few of his overseers knew how to give. In spite of this, sheep were an important part of English agriculture that he imitated and so he persisted in keeping them. At one time he had over 600!

In the spring of 1789 he wrote: “I have improved that species of my stock so much as to get five and one-quarter pounds of wool as the average of fleeces of my whole flock.”

Washington, according to his own account, was the first American to attempt the raising of mules. Quite a bit has been covered in various history books concerning his ex­periences with these animals.

Soon after the Revolution he asked America’s representative in Spain “to procure permission to extract a Jackass of the best breed.” Although exportation of these animals from Spain was forbidden at the time, the request was brought to the attention of the king who sent Washington two jacks and two jennets.

In 1788 Governor Morris sent him two Chinese pigs and a pair of Chinese geese. Of some golden Chinese pheasants he said, after seeing pictures of them, “they must be works of fancy.”

The fact is that so many of his friends sent him furred and feathered creatures that toward the end of his life he was the proprietor of a fairly large zoo.



That he had a peach orchard as early as 1760 is proven by an entry in his diary on February 22 of that year:

“Laid in part, the worm of a fence around the peach orchard.” No one seems to know the exact location of this orchard, but there have been guesses that it was on the slope near the tomb.

In 1763 he learned how to propagate and “wed” his trees. He recorded that he had “grafted 40 cherries viz. 12 Bullock Hearts, 18 very fine May Cherries, 10 Coronation. Also grafted 12 Magnum Bonum Plums. Also planted 4 Nuts of the Mediterranean Pame in the pen where the Chestnuts grow – sticks by East.”

Later he grafted quinces on pear and apple stocks; he also grafted “Spanish pears, butter pears, Bergamy pears, Newton pippins, 43 of the Mary Red Strick … etc.”

He grafted many cherries, plums etc. in March and in the spring he put English mulberry scions on wild mulberry stocks. In 1771 he planted grapes in an enclosure below his vegetable garden.

About this time he expressed a wish to have every possible specimen of native tree or shrub noted for beauty of form, leaf or flower planted around his home. Even amid the trials of the Revolution, this desire was not forgotten. And, of course, he lived to carry it out. He returned from war with a strong desire to beautify Mount Vernon and he surely did just that as any visitor to his “plantation” will tell you.

From a small house of eight rooms he transformed it into the present mansion, 96 feet long by 32 feet deep with two floors, an attic, an immense cellar and magnificent portico overlooking the Potomac.

Furthermore, he expressed a wish for “a plan of the most complete and useful farmyard for about 500 acres. “In this,” he said, “I mean to comprehend the barn and every appurtenance which ought to be annexed to the yard.”

Eventually he built a 16-sided barn, the plan of which is still preserved.


Landscape Gardener

After transforming Mount Vernon into a country estate, he started new ground plans, providing a sunken wall at the ends of the mansion and a bowling green on the west front which exists today.

As mentioned before, the spring of 1785 was particularly dry and since Farmer Washington had to be away from home several days each week, most of his trees and shrubs, entrusted to servants, died. But he was not completely dis­couraged and almost immediately planted 48 mahogany tree seeds brought from the West Indies.

In the fall of that year and spring of 1786 he sowed the lawn with English grass seeds and replaced some of the dead trees with willows, hawthorns, jessamines and palinurus for hedges.

Fortunately 1786 was a wet year and everything thrived. From this time on until the end of his life he was constantly receiving trees and shrubs from all over the world.
And in order to take care of some of his exotic plants, he built a hothouse next to his garden. The structure and ad­joining servants’ quarters was completely burned in 1835. The conservatory and servants’ quarters have been rebuilt to look much as they did in Washington’s time.

Visitors to Mount Vernon are always impressed with the formal garden, but we cannot be completely certain it is exactly the same as laid out by George. It is said that Martha set out the box hedges.

He took pride in the appearance of his estate and wrote: “I shall begrudge no reasonable expense that will contribute to the improvement and neatness of my farms.”

It is interesting to note that Martha, too, thought of him as a farmer. In quoting from a letter written by Martha Washington at the end of her husband’s presidency, she said: “Grandpapa is very well and much pleased with being once more Farmer Washington.”

Many agricultural historians feel that if Washington were alive today he would be an active worker in farmers’ insti­tutes, an eager visitor to agricultural colleges, a reader of scientific reports and farm journals, and an enthusiastic promoter of anything tending to better American farming and farm life.

In these days when the career of farming sometimes is put down as less than it really is, Washington’s example is a great lesson to all men, like him, who love the soil and con­sider farming the honorable profession that it is.


Marge Morris is the Home Editor of Pennsylvania Farmer.