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Washington was going green at Mount Vernon

September 16, 2008

Today, many folks are generations removed from the farm and in addition to their loss of connection they make very little effort to learn anything about agriculture.

Upon a recent visit to Mt. Vernon, I was reminded there was a time in this nation's history that agrarian pursuits were not looked down upon.

Many people today think if you cannot do it with a computer then it is not worth doing. While I enjoy much of the benefits that computers afford us I still prefer potato chips over computer chips when it comes to eating.

George Washington, who made his home at Mount Vernon, expanded the estate to nearly 8,000 acres where he abandoned the crop of tobacco by the mid-1760s and switched to wheat as his major crop.

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While most Americans know George as a great military leader and our first president, Washington would have told you he was first and foremost a farmer.

The first stop on your tour of the mansion at Mount Vernon is the formal dining room. This is the room where every dignitary who visited Mount Vernon would have been entertained. Looking up you will see the decorative motif of wheat sheaves and sickles. Leaving no doubt what George wanted you to know about what went on at Mount Vernon.

In a state that is highly involved with nutrient management, I was pleasantly surprised to see Mr. Washington, too, was interested in this topic. Just off the end of the horse stables stands a reconstruction of a "Dung Repository." The repository for dung was designed for animal manure and a variety of organic materials to compost or "cure" into fertilizer for use in the nearby gardens and orchard.

According to the sign in front of the structure, "the building illustrates George Washington's dedication to finding ways to improve the fertility of his soils, and to convert Mount Vernon into a model of progressive farming."

As you travel from the mansion to the farm site at Mount Vernon you will happen onto a sign that is titled "Visionary Farmer."

On this sign is a quote from a letter Washington wrote to the Marquis de Lafayette dated June 19, 1788, which states "I hope someday or another, we shall become a store house and granary for the world." Little did he know the U.S. would later become known for its food exports.

George was also ahead of his time when it came to soil amendments. He used creek mud, fish heads, marl and plaster of Paris. Creek mud of course was nothing more than good soil washed down stream and contained nutrients as well as sand and silt. Fish heads provided nutrients as well as organic matter. Marl and plaster of Paris provided the liming agents. Gypsum the main ingredient in plaster of Paris also added sulfur.

Lastly, Washington employed crop rotation on the order of a seven-year cycle. As an example he would plant buckwheat, which was plowed down as a green manure crop. Then wheat was planted and harvested to eat and sell. The next three years the field would be planted to grass and clover and grazed by livestock. The clover and grass as well as the manure from the grazing animals would be plowed down and a crop of corn or potatoes would be planted followed by a crop of wheat and then the cycle would start over with buckwheat.

So, in addition to buying local food, you can see the prominence agriculture is due in this nation by taking a drive in the countryside. You can also investigate the historical significance of agriculture as well as right here in Washington County at the Rural Heritage Museum or by taking a trip to Mt. Vernon or Colonial Williamsburg.

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