Alexandria History: George Washington, The Farmer

Alexandria History: George Washington, The Farmer

George Washington is remembered for being the father of the country, having served as an officer in the French and Indian War, Commander in Chief during the Revolutionary War, and founding President of the United States. However, for 15 years between the French and Indian War and the American Revolution, George Washington was a highly successful and innovative planter. He acquired land and experimented with various crops. Most southern planters focused on producing tobacco, but unlike others he realized there were serious downsides to this approach; including tobacco farming exhausted the soil. He considered it a ruinous mode of farming and stopped the practice.

Furthermore, the British had developed their “Mercantile System” where they put restrictions on what goods the colonies could produce, whose ships they could use, and most importantly, with whom they could trade; and in effect forcing colonists to buy and sell only with Britain. For the planters, this created dependence on London-based factor merchants who bought the tobacco and sold British goods back to the planters. The factors purchased all the products and were able to manipulate the prices paid. Further the same merchants sold goods back to the planters’ household and other finished products at exorbitant prices. The result led to planters being at the mercy and in constant debt to the factors with many going into bankruptcy, including Thomas Jefferson. Washington found a way to break away from that system by moving to new crops and techniques. He produced products for the local market, particularly growing of wheat. He built a mill to grind it into flour, which can be seen today. He also developed a distillery to convert corn into liquor that was in demand and could be shipped to further markets. He did not confine his farming to crops. He also raised cattle, pigs, sheep, and poultry.

He also saw the importance of crop rotation to avoid exhausting the land and grew a variety of products, including flax, hay, clover, buckwheat, turnips, and potatoes. He further was a strong advocate of fertilization as another way to avoid wearing out crop land. This change in farming methods and crops also began moving Mount Vernon away for dependence on slave labor. He constantly engaged in well documented agricultural experimentation. All of this activity moved Washington to be largely self sufficient and requiring few purchases through the British mercantile system. In short, his efforts increased his wealth and profitability. After his Presidency, he went back to his first love and continued agricultural advancement.

Submitted by Richard Kusserow, past president, George Washington Chapter, Virginia Society, Sons of the American Revolution.