2012 PRESS RELEASES
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February 10, 2012
A PRESIDENTIAL BEGINNING TO VIRGINIA AGRICULTURE
By Matthew J. Lohr, Commissioner, Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services
Contact: Elaine J. Lidholm, 804.786.7686
I don’t know how many of you celebrate President’s Day in February. You may serve cherry pie or Lincoln log for dessert or the children may draw pictures of a wigged George Washington or top-hatted Abraham Lincoln, but generally that’s about it. I’m not aware of President’s Day cards, or even President’s Day gifts. It seems that the bulk of our celebration consists of going to sales. Ads for cars, mattresses, furniture and more loudly proclaim their three-day only President’s Day Sales.
Here at the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, many of our employees are able to enjoy a three-day weekend with the holiday. Many of us, however, report as usual because the Virginia General Assembly is in session. But in my heart, I always take time on President’s Day to remember the remarkable contributions of President George Washington to the industry of agriculture, both here and around the United States.
Every school child knows that Washington was the father of our country. But not every one of them knows that he was also the father of American agriculture. They may know about Thomas Jefferson and his incredible contributions to agriculture in this new land, but I contend that it was Washington who set us on an agrarian path from where we have never really departed.
You may question that last statement because you think agriculture has lost some of its punch today. But let me remind you that with all our technology, tourism and government, here in Virginia agriculture is still our largest industry – by far. Nothing else comes close. We contribute at last $55 billion to the state’s economy every year and provide 357,000 jobs.
Part of the U.S.A.’s path was dictated by England. The Colonies were a ready market for British goods, and they made sure that duties and tariffs kept it that way. So America chose a different route and became, instead, the fields and farms for England, exporting everything from tobacco and cotton to corn and other grains. Botanists had a heyday in the 17th and 18th centuries in Virginia, and to this day, many plants bear the name Virginia in their types, Virginia peanuts and Virginia style tobacco being the most notable. The wild strawberry discovered here, fragaria virginiana, is one of the main breeding lines for modern-day strawberries, and if I were a better student of botany, I probably could name numerous other plants with the virginiana designation.
George Washington was not alone in being a Founding Farmer. Certainly his contemporary Benjamin Franklin played a huge role as he sent seeds to the new nation from Europe, seeds for many plants that he believed could not only thrive in America but could also be an important economic crop.
Yet Washington’s influence on agriculture was unique. To my mind, it was as great as his influence on our system of government. Just as we owe him for the concept of two-term Presidential limits, we also can attribute to him the practice of settling rather than migration. By the time Washington could turn his attention to his farms in northern Virginia, the thin topsoil at Mount Vernon was beginning to wear out. Like his father before him, he was a tobacco farmer, but he realized that the plant was ruining the fertility of his soil. So he switched to wheat, but more importantly, he began composting and using manure to enrich his soil. Composting was one of his many experiments to improve the yields of his agricultural operations.
Washington waxed enthusiastic about manure and even called it the first transmutation toward gold: “A knowing farmer, who, Midas like, can convert everything he touches into manure, as the first transmutation towards gold.” - G. Washington (1785) It makes you think differently and perhaps more respectfully about the products your animals leave behind, doesn’t it? They are depositing the first transmutation toward gold.
He also expounded frequently and eloquently on the virtues of compost and what we call fertilizer today. He used animal waste and by-products, and he recorded an experiment in his diary on April 14, 1760, when he "mixed my compost in box” with different types in the various apartments. He planted the same number of seeds in each compartment and systematically recorded the results. After many trials, Washington applied manure, river and creek mud, fish heads and plaster of Paris to his fields with some success. He built a very unusual building whose sole purpose was to compost manure and to facilitate its curing into usable fertilizer. (Source: “America’s First Composter” by Dennis J. Pogue and Robert Arner)
With these practices, he admonished American farmers to settle down, enrich their soil instead of wearing it out and thus, give up the practice of moving ever further west as top soils thinned and lost their productivity. In other words, he encouraged permanent settlement, not continuous migration. He advocated farming for the long haul.
If you visit Mount Vernon today – and I strongly recommend that you do so – you will see many of Washington’s innovations still in use: a hot-air greenhouse, a productive herd of Red Devon dairy cattle descended from Washington’s original herd and a reproduction of his 16-sided barn used to process wheat. The nearly round structure enabled horses to tread the wheat on the barn’s second floor.
Washington was committed to agricultural experimentation and innovation and saw it as a political statement. Like any farmer, he continuously tried to improve his yields and the output from his various farming enterprises, but when he did so, he did it as much for America as for himself. He believed that agriculture was the first and most important occupation of the new nation and a way for America to establish itself in the world. When Washington made improvements on his farm, he hoped that they would benefit all of his countrymen. In 1788, he wrote to Samuel Chamberline that in the present state of America, our welfare and prosperity depend upon the cultivation of our lands and turning the produce of them to the best advantage. (Source: Pogue and Arner)
Now perhaps you understand why President’s Day is such a significant holiday for me. I may be running from a Senate Committee to a hearing in the House of Delegates, or meeting with staff as they analyze legislation pertaining to VDACS. At some point during the day, however, I will stop and thank President George Washington for his influence on agriculture and his example as a working farmer. Thanks in a large part to him, we now enjoy one of the safest, most abundant and most affordable food supplies in the world.
Happy President’s Day, everyone. Now, go cut yourself a nice slice of cherry pie.