Today, Feb. 22, we celebrate the birth in 1732 of our nation’s first president, Gen. George Washington, commander of the victorious Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War, president of the constitutional convention of 1787 and the man we honor as the father of our country.
Revered by generations of Americans as a soldier and statesman, our first president was also a farmer, though hardly a farmer such as most of us know.
He was born and reared to be a Colonial tobacco planter, thrust into that role at the age of 11 when his father, Augustine, died. He later worked as a land surveyor, served in the Virginia Militia and subsequently led the colonies to freedom from Great Britain.
But, first he was an agriculturalist.
His Mount Vernon, Va., estate south of Alexandria ultimately encompassed thousands of acres on five farms, though large portions were owned by other family members.
Washington was in the fourth generation to own the estate originally called Little Hunting Creek Plantation, inheriting the family property after the deaths of his brother and his two heirs (that’s the short version of a story).
Dependent on the labor of more than 300 slaves, Washington experimented with innovative farming methods, such as a seven-year crop rotation system producing corn, wheat and legumes. Even as he led his country through the American Revolution and establishment of the United States, he remained active in agricultural management of Mount Vernon.
Among his principal enterprises was hog production, as outlined in a 2018 article by the North Carolina Pork Council. Their writer noted “Washington kept innumerable hogs, processing them for meats and other products, including ham, salted pork, sausage, bacon, scrapple, chitterlings and lard.”
Two years after the Revolution was won, records show 128 hogs were slaughtered at Mount Vernon, yielding more than 17,000 pounds of pork for the family and servants.
Washington was also one of the nation’s first large-scale wheat farmers, according to “Eat Wheat, org.” With his five farms encompassing more than 3,000 acres of cultivated ground, Washington switched from tobacco to grains, particularly soft red winter wheat, as early as 1766.
In the late 1790s, Washington built a distillery and made whiskey, integrating his grain and meat production enterprises. The purpose was both for revenue from the sale of spirits and fattening hogs on the leftover corncobs and mash. Washington’s system foreshadowed today’s use of distillers’ grains to fatten livestock.
Researching Washington I found voluminous resources on the “Mount Vernon” and “History” websites, much more than space allows. Some articles also noted his leadership in selective breeding of horses, mules and other livestock.
It should come as no surprise that Washington has been venerated by the National FFA since 1928 as “a diligent and exemplary farmer and agriculturist.” To that end, Washington is cited by the chapter treasurer in the opening ceremonies of every FFA meeting.
Paying lasting tribute to Washington, the National FFA board of directors determined in 1947 that National FFA Week would always fall during the week of Washington’s birthday.
So, you see, it’s not just me who thinks George Washington deserves a lot of respect for more than his military and civic leadership. Indeed, he may have been a better farmer than general. But, that’s just an old FFA reporter’s conjecture.
In any case, be is still our first and among few farmer United States presidents.
Copyright 2023, James E. Hamilton; email firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more of his works in Ozarks RFD 2010-2015, available online from Amazon, Barnes & Noble or from the author.
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