From Mount Vernon to Monticello, many of the key conservation practices that USDA recommends producers use on their farms have roots with our founding farmers. These include presidents such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, as well as innovators such as Ben Franklin.
The young nation’s political and thought leaders knew the importance of agriculture and—more importantly, sustainable agriculture—to America’s success. They wrote about how to grow enough food to feed a booming population and how to boost soil health. They also learned how to farm in a way that prevents soil erosion.
A Farmer First
“Farming technique was Washington’s principal intellectual discipline, his favorite topic of conversation and the focus of his private correspondence,” says historian Garry Wills.
When British troops closed in on New York City in 1776, then-Gen. Washington temporarily put aside his battle plans to pen a letter to the steward of Mount Vernon about his farm.
The “First” Crop Experiment Stations
Washington studied and implemented ways to improve his farming methods at Mount Vernon, his 8,000-acre homestead and network of farms in Virginia near what would later become Washington, D.C.
Washington took meticulous notes, and he experimented quite often. The same is true of Jefferson, the nation’s third president, known for hundreds of varieties of fruits, vegetables and herbs grown at Monticello near Charlottesville, Virginia.
With everything so unstudied—soils, weather, crops, pests, weeds and farming methods—the founding farmers ran unofficial demonstration farms.
Franklin, although known for his inventions, bought a New Jersey farm where he retired. He managed the land like a “miniature experiment station, carrying on projects in drainage, in crop rotation and especially in the utilization of the newer grasses and liming and fertilization,” wrote historian Earle D. Ross.
And of Washington, historian Albert Bushnell Hart wrote: “He established what I believe to have been the first agricultural experiment station in American history.”
Unknowingly, these founding farmers were among the earliest proponents of soil health in America. They used crop rotations and organic fertilizers to boost soil health and production. Many of the farming methods implemented on their farms align with conservation practices that USDA recommends to farmers today.
Ten years after the republic was born, Washington began to reconfigure fields on his farms. He changed from a one-crop tobacco system to a seven-crop system growing wheat, corn and legumes. Wheat was the principal cash crop and corn fed his livestock. Legumes,in turn, fed the soil.
America’s fifth president, James Monroe, was also a farmer. He left tobacco for a multi-crop system of grains. Historian Harlow Giles Unger wrote: “To keep his fields fertile, he rotated his crops, setting some fields aside for a season of clover … to revitalize the soil.”
Not Going out of Style
Conservation crop rotation is among more than 100 conservation practices the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service helps farmers plan and implement because of its many benefits to soil and production. Similarly, contour farming and cover crops, which were found on farms on the early days of our republic, are still used today.
While visiting France, Jefferson saw farmers planting to the contour of the land rather than in straight lines. He wrote: “Our country is hilly, and we have been in the habit of ploughing in straight rows … and our soil was rapidly running into rivers.”
He also used contour farming at Monticello, putting him ahead of his contemporaries.
Washington’s cropping systems included cover crops to prevent erosion and improve soil. Mount Vernon researcher Jinny Fox wrote: “He rotates crops; first he tries buckwheat and later switches to clover.”
Help for Farmers
Lincoln was raised on farms in Indiana and Illinois. Who would know better than a farmer-turned-president about the importance of the government supporting agriculture? He advocated for the creation of the USDA and signed the law that created it.
More than 150 years later, the USDA offers a variety of risk management, disaster, loan and conservation programs to help agricultural producers build resiliency and endure the ups and downs of the market.
For more information on conservation practices—including conservation crop rotation, contour farming and cover crops—as well as other USDA programs and services, contact your nearest USDA service center.
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2019 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.