New Series: Lessons from Historical Agriculture

I have been looking for a subject to write on that combines my two passions: History and Farming.

The result is the beginning of a new series entitled “Lessons from Historical Agriculture” in which I research wisdom (or folly!) of the past in order to enhance our knowledge and abilities in modern agriculture.

Arthur Young, a correspondent of George Washington’s, “believed that each generation of farmers could benefit from the knowledge and advances of those who preceded them.”

Hopefully this series can help bring to light ideas of the past to stimulate conversation about improving practices in farming today.

Speaking of George … One of the most famous early American examples of using sustainable agriculture practices was George Washington. He grew up being taught the farming mindset that tobacco was the crop of choice to grow, but soon learned that tobacco was not a sustainable or realistic option. In fact, growing tobacco threatened the future of American farming because of the demands tobacco crops put on the soil. After only four years of growth, tobacco might require 20 years of lying fallow or growing wheat before being able to grow tobacco in the same location again.

Realizing this misuse of land was not a good business plan, George Washington bravely changed his farming philosophy from the common mindset of the day and began studying and implementing “new husbandry” with ideas on maximizing soil productivity for business success along with longevity of soil health for future generations. George Washington realized a problem in agriculture that persists today – mismanagement of land.

Nothing in my opinion would contribute more to the welfare of these States, than the proper management of our Lands…” GW remarked.

WAquoteCrop rotation, one of his well-known experiments, involved the use of different crops for harvest while concurrently building soil quality. What George may not have been able to put to scientific words at the time is that different plants take up (and/or return to the soil) particular nutrients. By changing the crops growing in each field year after year, different elements could be added back to the soil or removed at different levels to help maintain a balance of nutrients. Washington purchased several seed varieties, including cabbage, turnip, sainfoin, rye, winter vetch, wheat, field bean, barley, and oats. Crop rotation also included pasturing as a part of the rotation.

A book on the subject of George Washington’s farming practices states that “Washington … considered the proper use of crop rotation to be the most important aspect of good husbandry.”

I am fascinated with the concept that 1700’s science and 1700’s farmers were sharp enough to understand this concept that “modern” science is again confirming to be accurate and effective. Modern studies are now re-realizing the value of crop rotation, cover crops, rotational grazing, and soil improvement as essential tools for maintaining or “fixing” our soils from years of depletion. Our agriculture for many years has focused on mono-cropping, the growth of one crop on the same soil season after season for years with only the addition of a few major nutrients (N-P-K, and perhaps a few more) without the balance of micro-nutrients or measuring of soil health in organic matter and microbial activity.

A recent article in Furrow magazine discusses the benefits of crop rotation, cover crops, and use of livestock for soil health. Some of the listed cover crops include vetch, rye, triticale, crimson clover, radish, and peas – not much different than George Washington’s list! Farmers are using the cover crops as temporary pasture for cattle, where amazing gain and health benefits are being observed – for both cattle and land! NRCS must be convinced these techniques work, as funding is now available for farmers to implement cover crops and other more sustainable practices.

Imagine what our soil could be like if generations before us had all listened to George Washington and his “new husbandry” scientific correspondents.

While we cannot change the past, we can change the future. Each improvement to soil we make will bring benefit to our lives as well as for future generations – perhaps American farming will not be lost to history after all!

Up next in the series: Custard Ice-cream for the modern Ice-house


Our articles on rotational pasturing and improving pastures:

Quotes and information on George Washington – Fusonie, Alan & Fusonie, Donna Jean. (1998). George Washington: Pioneer Farmer. Mount Vernon, VA: The Mount Vernon Ladies Association.

Furrow Magazine article: Link, Joe D. (June 2016). Building Soil with Livestock. The Furrow, 121, 10-13. (Read online here: )

NRCS – Note, each state has a NRCS and different opportunities.


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