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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Farmer George

Air Date: Week of

Another title George Washington can lay claim to is "Pioneer Farmer." In an era when most American farmers practiced the "slash and burn" farming techniques common in many developing countries today, Washington was on the cutting edge of sustainable agriculture. Lex Gillespie has our report.


CURWOOD: George Washington is best remembered as the founding President of the United States. But he can also claim another title: pioneer farmer. In this year that marks the 200th anniversary of his death, Washington is being praised for his leadership in agriculture as well as the military and politics. In an era when most American farmers practice the slash and burn farming techniques common in many developing countries today, President Washington was on the cutting edge of sustainable agriculture. Lex Gillespie has our report.

(Bird song; fife and drums)

GILLESPIE: At Mount Vernon, George Washington's stately Virginia home, a fife and drum band complete with tricorner hats and Colonial garb greets visitors with a familiar tune. (Fife and drums play Yankee Doodle)

GILLESPIE: Washington made Mount Vernon his home from 1754 to his death in 1799. The white mansion sits on top of a verdant bend of the Potomac River, 16 miles south of the nation's Capitol. But Mount Vernon was more than just a residence. It was also a highly productive farm.

NARRATOR: You're standing in the center of one of the most delicious spots on the entire Mount Vernon estate. For six months of the year, George Washington's fruit garden provided ripe, juicy fruit for his family and friends. Washington started this orchard just before he became President, and by the time he returned home from Philadelphia eight years later, he could enjoy cherries in June, peaches and plums in the summer, and apples and pears throughout the fall.

(Bird song)

GILLESPIE: Fruits, flowers, grains, and vegetables grew on 3,000 acres of farmland on this spacious estate. In his boyhood, as legend has it, George may have chopped down a cherry tree, but as an adult he had a green thumb. His success as a farmer comes in part from his many innovations at Mount Vernon, where he pioneered sustainable farming methods, like modern soil conservation, crop rotation, and diversification.

QUINN: The famous eulogy of Washington is, "First in war and first in peace." Now, we also feel like he was first in composting.

GILLESPIE: Michael Quinn is Deputy Director of Programs at Mount Vernon.

QUINN: Because Washington is so intent on returning nutrients to the soil. He is reclaiming the manure out of the stable, composting that and spreading it on the fields. He's taking the waste from the agricultural products, you know, whether it's the straw from the wheat, and he's again returning that to the field. He's growing green manures like buckwheat and clover and plowing them under so they rot and return their nutrients to the field. So, in every aspect of his farming, he's using compost. He used that as the Midas touch. In fact, he uses that term to make a farm yield its produce.

GILLESPIE: Of course, Washington, like most of the rich Southern farmers of his day, relied on slave labor to work on his plantation. The first President owned a total of 316 slaves at his death. When he began farming, Washington raised tobacco, the principle cash crop of the Colonial era, which required large amounts of slave labor. But he, unlike most of his contemporaries, abandoned tobacco when he noticed how much this leafy plant damaged the soil.

QUINN: I mean, to begin with, tobacco farming just gobbles up land. It lays waste to the fields, and the only way to continue is to move on to new land. And Washington just inherently was repelled by that. It was too wasteful. So he began experimenting with oat, barley, wheat, and he very quickly transformed this into a farm that grew staples: wheat primarily, but also corn and potatoes. And this was a crop that was not only kinder and gentler to the land, but it was a crop he could sell locally as well as overseas in England.


GILLESPIE: Down the hill from the mansion, Dave Moore turns over reddish- colored soil with a hoe in a patch of buckwheat. Moore, a retired agriculture teacher, is a historical interpreter at Mount Vernon, and he's dressed the part, with a floppy black hat, white shirt, and breeches. Moore is standing amidst plots of wheat, corn, cotton, potatoes, and alfalfa. In the 1750s, when Washington substituted these plants for tobacco, Moore says he experimented with novel forms of crop rotation.

MOORE: I think what made him a pioneer was the fact that he truly wanted to protect his land from eroding. I think if we look at the bottom line about Washington, we look at the erosion problem that existed back 200 years ago, and it was so severe that it was causing a lot of land to be lost. And Washington could see this. And many farmers in that time period couldn't see it. And when he saw this, he decided to do something about it, and this is when he put his seven-year rotation in. Of course, he uses the fertilizers to help improve that.

GILLESPIE: Local tobacco planters thought Washington was foolish to give up on the lucrative crop, but he continued to turn Mount Vernon into a veritable laboratory for agricultural experiments. Washington tested new varieties of wheat and special grasses for his pastures. Searching for the best fertilizer, he tried fish heads, silt from the Potomac, and even plaster of Paris. Washington also designed several unique buildings for his estate, including a brick repository for storing dung. And he ground wheat using horses in a barn with 16 sides.

QUINN. The 16-sided barn, which we have just reconstructed here at Mount Vernon, is the hallmark of Washington's creative approach to farming.

GILLESPIE: Michael Quinn.

(Threshing sounds)

QUINN: It is in fact a machine rather than a building. And its sole purpose is to improve the processing of this wheat. He originally intended for his wheat to be threshed by having the slaves beat it with flails. Well, that's horrible work. And he would come home and find instead that his slaves had put the wheat on the open ground and were trotting a horse in a circle over it. Well, he decided to stop beating his head against the wall and simply build a building that would bring inside exactly what the slaves were doing anyway. So the reason it's 16-sided is it accommodates a horse trotting in a circle. It's as close to a round building as he could build.

GILLESPIE: Washington designed the top floor of his two-story barn with open slats, so the kernels of wheat fell below to the first floor while the chaff and dung were held on the second. But not everything on Washington's farm worked out as well. He used one machine he dubbed "the spiky roller," which was supposed to break up the soil. Drawn by a horse or a mule, it's a giant wooden cylinder with dozens of spikes jutting out. But the spiky roller gave such a bumpy ride that it could damage the user's internal organs. And for shooing away pests, Washington tried other schemes.

NARRATOR: Washington thought that some combination of thick hedges, fences, and ditches, would keep deer from feasting on his fruit and vegetables. Did it work? No way. But Washington never stopped trying.

GILLESPIE: For the most part, Washington's innovations allowed him to prosper as a farmer. He exported grain as far away as the West Indies, in wooden barrels stamped GW. But farming was more than a livelihood for Washington. The first President viewed sustainable agriculture as vital to the success of the new country he led, perhaps more important than politicing or soldiering. For Living on Earth, I'm Lex Gillespie in Washington.



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