No, I’m not talking about the upscale-casual restaurant chain, but the founding farmer, George Washington. While he was commander-in-chief of the Continental Army and the United States’ first president, he thought of himself first as a farmer. Although his name is attached to the nation’s capitol, counties, schools, parks and monuments, rarely do we associate it with agriculture.
Looking at Washington’s farming practices and accomplishments, it’s easy to see how he’d fit in well among fellow vendors at Central Farm Markets. In honor of President’s Day, let’s get to know George Washington, the farmer.
Washington was more than just a farmer – he was an agricultural innovator. If Washington were alive today and farming, he’d be a rock star of sustainable agriculture. Breaking from the norms of his time, he was the first to recognize how harsh tobacco farming was on the land. He greatly reduced the number acres in tobacco on his farms and instituted crop rotation to enrich his soils and reduce pests. He designed and built barns to meet specific agricultural needs. He experimented with over one hundred varieties of crops—some successful, others complete failures, and many that are routinely found at farmers markets today, including pumpkins, beans, cabbages, kale, carrots, beets, turnips, peas, parsnips and potatoes. He focused on quality over quantity.
Thanks to the detailed records he kept, we know today that Washington pioneered many of the crops and practices found on today’s mid-Atlantic diversified farms.
Not only did Washington keep extensive records on what he planted, his ledgers also revealed that there was little to no financial profits from tobacco, which is why he began experimenting with different crops including flax, hops, hemp, rye, barley and wheat – all that put his farms firmly in the black.
Washington took it a step further, as many farmers have done so today, by excelling at value-added products using his crops. For example, he turned experimental cultivars of grapes into fine wines, tree fruits into vinegars and ciders. He even built a distillery to make whiskey from his grain crops. In 1799, the distillery at Mount Vernon turned out over 11,000 gallons of rye and corn whiskey making it the largest distillery in the country at that time. The leftover distillers’ grains were used to fatten up to 150 hogs. The hemp he grew was turned into high-grade ropes and spun into canvas for ships’ sails.
While it is true that Washington owned slaves, what many do not know is his detailed agricultural records sowed the first seeds for the abolition of slavery as his records documented the eventual breakdown of agriculture when practiced by a slave labor force cultivating crops with only seasonal labor needs as most northern states required.
Today, agriculture continues to struggle with what amounts to modern-day slavery practices in the industrial food chain. One of the advantages of shopping at regional outdoor farmers markets is that customers are often able to meet the farm owners as well as the workers who harvest, pack, process and sell the food. If you ask your farmers if they share a similar philosophy with the founding farmer, I bet most of them would agree – including me.
“I had rather be on my farm than be emperor of the world.” ~George Washington
To learn more about George Washington, you can visit Mount Vernon where much of his farm has been recreated and operated as it had been during his lifetime.