Following the Revolutionary war, Washington retired from public service and returned to Mount Vernon and to his first love, farming. He would later serve as the nation’s first president from 1789 to 1797.
Washington wanted his country to be the “granary for the world” and believed it was possible thanks to the extensive “difference of soil and variety of climate” in the United States. But it would take more than that to achieve the dream. It would also take technology and experimentation. By the 1780s, the British agricultural revolution was in full swing, spurred on, in part, by the earlier work of Jethro Tull (no, not the band), an inventor and agriculturist whose seed drill and horse-drawn hoe were huge technological advancements.
Washington had adopted these tools for his farms at Mount Vernon, but by June 1785, had decided he needed to step up his game and reached out to connections in England in search of someone to oversee his farming operation. Seven months later, in January 1786, Arthur Young, one of the leading figures in the advancement of agriculture in the United Kingdom, contacted Washington, ostensibly to find him an overseer, and the two began a longstanding correspondence that revolved around the men’s love of all things agricultural.
George Washington chromolithograph base on painting by Gilbert Stuart
Young began his first letter to Washington by apologizing for his impudence at writing such an important man but “the spectacle of a great commander retiring in the manner you have done from the head of a victorious army to the amusements of agriculture” inclined him towards the move. He offered to procure whatever Washington might need. Young also sent along the first four volumes of his Annals of Agriculture, and Other Useful Arts, a monthly publication on the latest advancements in farming.
Washington, obviously excited by the chance to share ideas with Young, responded that if Young “should find in the course of our correspondence, that I am likely to become troublesome, you can check me.”
Washington was a farming fanatic who felt experimentation was vital to progress and believed it was up to him and other wealthy farmers to do the experimenting since they could afford to fail, where small farmers didn’t have that luxury.
“So important did he consider the position of the American farmer, both to the wealth and prosperity of the nation, that he himself, setting the prime example, devoted all his leisure time to either the culture of his farms in person…or in conducting extensive correspondence on the subject with some of the most experienced men in Europe,” wrote Franklin Knight in the introduction to “Letters on Agriculture from His Excellency George Washington,” published in 1847.
Young, at Washington’s request, sent him two of the newest types of ploughs available, and a number of seeds for plants used as forage for livestock and as nitrogen fixers for soil, including sainfoin (a legume that’s making a comeback these days for grazing animals and as a hay), winter vetch, hop clover and burnet.
Arthur Young (1741-1820) by John Russell – National Portrait Gallery
Young continued to send Washington bound editions of the Annals that Washington kept, copying passages that interested him into notebooks. Washington also build a barn from plans that Young sent him.
Among the innovations Washington made at Mount Vernon was the switch from tobacco, which was exhausting the soil, to grains; a seven-year crop rotation system; and composting. He even built the largest whiskey distillery in the country on the estate.
It’s worth noting that Washington’s plantation used slave labor, so while he was progressive when it came to agricultural practices, he was less so when it came to the issue of slavery, although his will did make a provision for the emancipation of his slaves upon the death of Martha Washington.
Eventually, smaller farmers began to practice some of Washington’s methods, helping to keep America’s farming sector vital so that the United States could become the granary for the world that Washington had hoped for, and worked towards, with the help of innovative British agricultural thinkers.