George Washington as Farmer by Junius Brutus Stearns. 1851
George Washington: Farmer (1915) by Paul Leland Haworth (1876-1936)
Agricultural Operations & Experiments before the Revolution
In the beginning, there was scant help for Washington as a farmer...The Philadelphia Society for the Promotion of Agriculture was not founded until 1785. In his later years our Farmer could & did write to such foreign specialists as Arthur Young & Sir John Sinclair, but they were Englishmen unfamiliar with American soils & climate & could rarely give a weighty answer propounded to them by an American...
...Thus in the fall of 1764 we find him sowing "a few Oats to see if they would stand the winter." Any country boy of to-day could tell him that ordinary oats sown under such conditions in the latitude of Mount Vernon would winter kill too badly to be of much use, but Washington could not know it till he had tried.
He began...his experiment in March, 1760, with lucerne. Lucerne is alfalfa. It will probably be news to most readers that alfalfa--the wonderful forage crop of the West, the producer of more gold than all the mines of the Klondike--was in use so long ago, for the impression is pretty general that it is comparatively new; the fact is that it is older than the Christian era & that the name alfalfa comes from the Arabic & means "the best crop." Evidently our Farmer had been reading on the subject, for in his diary he quotes what "Tull speaking of lucerne, says." He tried out the plant on this & several other occasions & had a considerable field of it in 1798.
In this same year, 1760, we find him sowing clover, rye, grass, hope, trefoil, timothy, spelt, which was a species of wheat, & various other grasses & vegetables, most of them to all intents & purposes unknown to the Virginia agriculture of that day.
He also recorded an interesting experiment with fertilizer. April 14, 1760, he writes in his diary:
"Mixed my composts in a box with the apartments [pg 093] in the following manner, viz. No. 1 is three pecks of earth brought from below the hill out of the 46 acre field without any mixture. In No. 2 is two pecks of sand earth & one of marle taken out of the said field, which marle seemed a little inclined to sand. 3 has 2 pecks of sd. earth & 1 of river sand.
"4 has a peck of Horse Dung
"5 has mud taken out of the creek
"6 has cow dung
"7 has marle from the Gulleys on the hillside, wch. seem'd to be purer than the other
"8 sheep dung
"9 Black mould from the Gulleys on the hill side, wch. seem'd to be purer than the other
"10 Clay got just below the garden
"All mixed with the same quantity & sort of earth in the most effective manner by reducing the whole to a tolerable degree of fineness & rubbing them well together on a cloth. In each of these divisions were planted three grains of wheat, 3 of oats, & as many of barley, all of equal distances in Rows & of equal depth done by a machine made for the purpose. The wheat rows are next the numbered side, the oats in the middle, & the barley [pg 094] on the side next the upper part of the Garden. Two or three hours after sowing in this manner, & about an hour before sunset I watered them all equally alike with water that had been standing in a tub abt two hours exposed to the sun." Three weeks later he inspected the boxes & concluded that Nos. 8 & 9 gave the best results.
The plows of the period were cumbersome & did their work poorly. Consequently in March, 1760, Washington "Fitted a two Eyed Plow instead of a Duck Bill Plow", & tried it out, using his carriage horses in the work. But this new model proved upon the whole a failure & a little later he "Spent the greater part of the day in making a new plow of my own Invention." Next day he set the new plow to work "and found She answerd very well." A little later he "got a new harrow made of smaller & closer teethings for harrowing in grain--the other being more proper for preparing the ground for sowing."
Much of his attention in the next few years was devoted to wheat growing, for, as already related, he soon decided gradually to discontinue tobacco & it was imperative for him to discover some [pg other money crop to take its place. We find him steeping his seed wheat in brine & alum to prevent smut & he also tried other experiments to protect his grain from the Hessian fly & rust. Noticing how the freezing & thawing of the ground in spring often injured the wheat by lifting it out of the ground, he adopted the practice of running a heavy roller over the wheat in order to get the roots back into the ground & he was confident that when the operation was performed at the proper time, that is when the ground was soft & the roots were still alive, it was productive of good results.
In June, 1763, he "dug up abt. a load of Marle to spread over Wheat Land for experiment." In 1768 he came to the conclusion that most farmers began to cut their wheat too late, for of course cradling was a slow process--scarcely four acres per day per cradler--and if the acreage was large several days must elapse before the last of the grain could be cut, with the result that some of it became so ripe that many of the kernels were shattered out & lost before the straw could be got to the threshing floor. By careful experiments he determined that the grain would not lose perceptibly in size & weight if the wheat were cut comparatively green. In wheat-growing communities the discussion as to this question still rages--extremists on one side will not cut their wheat till it is dead ripe, while those on the other begin to harvest it when it is almost sea-green.
In 1763 Washington entered into an agreement with John Carlyle & Robert Adams of Alexandria to sell to them all the wheat he would have to dispose of in the next seven years. The price was to be three shillings & nine pence per bushel, that is, about ninety-one cents. This would not be far from the average price of wheat to-day, but, on the one side, we should bear in mind that ninety-one cents then had much greater purchasing power than now, so that the price was really much greater, and, on the other, that the cost of raising wheat was larger then, owing to lack of self-binders, threshing machines & other labor-saving devices.
The wheat thus sold by Washington was to be delivered at the wharf at Alexandria or beside a boat or flat on Four Mile Run Creek. The delivery for 1764 was 257-1/2 bushels; for 1765, 1,112-3/4 bushels; for 1766, 2,331-1/2 bushels; for 1767--a bad year--1,293-1/2 bushels; for 1768, 4,994-1/2 bushels [pg 097] of wheat & 4,304-1/2 bushels of corn; for 1769, 6,241-1/2 bushels of wheat.
Thereafter he ground a good part of his wheat & sold the flour. He owned three mills, one in western Pennsylvania, already referred to, a second on Four Mile Run near Alexandria, & a third on the Mount Vernon estate. This last mill had been in operation since his father's day. It was situated near the mouth of the stream known as Dogue Run, which was not very well suited for the purpose as it ran from the extreme of low water in summer to violent floods in winter & spring. Thus his miller, William A. Poole, in a letter that wins the sweepstakes in phonetic spelling, complains in 1757 that he has been able to grind but little because "She fails by want of Water." At other times the Master sallies out in the rain with rescue crews to save the mill from floods & more than once the "tumbling dam" goes by the board in spite of all efforts. The lack of water was partly remedied in 1771 by turning the water of Piney Branch into the Run, & about the same time a new & better mill was erected, while in 1797 further improvements were made. During the whole period flatboats & small schooners could come to the wharf to take away the flour. Corn & other grains were ground, as well as wheat, & the mill had considerable neighborhood custom, the toll exacted being one-eighth. Only a few stones sticking in a bank now remain of the mill.
Washington divided his flour into superfine, fine, middlings & ship stuff. It was put into barrels manufactured by the plantation coopers & much of it ultimately found its way to the West India market. A tradition--much quoted--has it that barrels marked "George Washington, Mount Vernon," were accepted in the islands without any inspection, but Mr. J.M. Toner, one of the closest students of Washington's career, contended that this was a mistake & pointed to the fact that the Virginia law provided for the inspection of all flour before it was exported & the placing of a brand on each barrel...
That his flour was so good was in large measure due to the excellent quality of the wheat from which it was made. By careful attention to his seed & to cultivation he succeeded in raising grain that often weighed upward of sixty pounds to the bushel. After the Revolution he wrote: "No wheat that has ever yet fallen under my observation exceeds the wheat which some years ago I cultivated extensively."
His idea of good cultivation in these years was to let his fields lie fallow at certain intervals, though he also made use of manure, marl, etc., & in 1772 tried the experiment of sowing two bushels of salt per acre upon fallow ground, dividing the plot up into strips eight feet in width & sowing the alternate strips in order that he might be able to determine results.
He imported from England an improved Rotheran or patent plow, and, having noticed in an agricultural work mention of a machine capable of pulling up two or three hundred stumps per day, he expressed a desire for one, saying: "If the accounts are not greatly exaggerated, such powerful assistance must be of vast utility in many parts of this wooden country, where it is impossible for our force (and laborers are not to be hired here), between the finishing of one crop & preparations for another, to clear ground fast enough to afford the proper changes, either in the planting or farming business."