George Washington was ahead of his time in his ag practices

February 21, 2011
  • Jeff Semler
Jeff Semler

As you read this column, it is Feb. 22, which is George Washington’s birthday. Monday was Presidents Day, which is the observance of the birthdays of Washington and Abraham Lincoln.

Both men were intimately involved in agriculture and education.

Most people know Washington’s connection to agriculture if for no other reason than for Mount Vernon, his plantation on the banks of the Potomac in Northern Virginia. If you visit there, you will see that he was a man ahead of his time. He had a manure storage shed and practiced a seven-year crop rotation. The crop rotation really made him a visionary, as the standard practice for gentry planters was to plant until the land played out and then move.

Lincoln, of course, is known for his hard-scrabble upbringing, where he spent time behind a mule plowing and splitting rails. However, as you might remember, he had the greatest impact on agriculture by his creation of the Land Grant University system.

The Land Grant Colleges (as they were known then) focused on educating the industrial class in the areas of agriculture and mechanics. This was revolutionary for higher education, since up to that point, higher education was almost exclusively the domain of the rich.

As I have mentioned in other columns, the United States has been a world leader in agriculture due in no small part to the Land Grant System. This system has been coveted and emulated across the globe with varying degrees of success.

I recently mentioned how the U.S. is becoming desperately short of veterinarians for large animals, and most recently how underfunded research at agricultural colleges has become. Well, the following were the first few sentences of a recent article in Dairy Herd Network (an online dairy newsletter): “There are two major concerns voiced by both faculty working at land grant universities and industry folks regarding the intersection of agriculture and higher education. First, we don’t have enough people graduating with degrees in agricultural fields, especially those with any agricultural experience. Second, the average age of a farm/ranch operator in the United States is 57 years old (”

The article goes on to say that gone are the days when students graduating with agricultural degrees have close ties with production agriculture. It was not uncommon when I was studying at WVU to have the majority of my classmates be directly off farms or at least had been exposed to and engaged in agriculture through relatives, 4-H and FFA. Today, this link is the exception, not the rule.

The question is can we reverse this tide and produce agriculture professionals before the current crop retires? If we don’t, we will not have enough people trained to produce, secure, research or inspect the food supply.

So, in honor of our agricultural past, encourage a student or two to explore careers in agriculture. If you are a farmer, how about mentoring one?

You never know, the student you inspire might be the next George Washington Carver.

Jeff Semler is an Extension educator, specializing in agriculture and natural resources, for the University of Maryland Extension. He is based in Washington County. He can be reached weekdays by telephone at 301-791-1404, ext. 25, or by e-mail at

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