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Founding farmers backbone of this nation
Dr. Victor Martin

The weather overall has cooperated this week. Only spotty rains and decent heat with some wind to dry down both the wheat crop and soil. This was written this past Thursday and by now, with some luck, wheat harvest should be in full swing and make good progress this week barring rainfall. While spotty, the wheat coming in has been a little wetter than desired but test weights have looked good. Early yield reports also look good but remember, you cut your seed wheat and good fields first. This is Independence Day week so let’s take a break and explore a bit the intersection of the founding of this country and agriculture.

Most of us know that Washington and Jefferson were farmers with large plantations. However, Washington came to agriculture relatively late; in his late twenty’s after his marriage and pursued it with purpose and passion. He experimented with many types of crop rotations and potential crops. He experimented in better ways to use manures in crop production. During the Revolutionary War, his mind was frequently preoccupied by Mount Vernon and letters written confirm this. Washington was also an early proponent of value added agriculture with what was likely the largest distillery at the time.

We are familiar with Jefferson’s Monticello, his scientific curiosity, and love of agriculture. Both he and Franklin kept detailed weather records in hopes of being able to predict the weather. He also practiced and tried the same farming experimentation going further than Washington did. He felt the best democracy was based on an agrarian society with the values of an agrarian society. His work included diverse crop rotations with legumes, cover crops and contour tillage along with terracing to prevent erosion. Jefferson developed a better, more effective plow going deeper in the soil to help aid infiltration and decrease erosion. Many common crops planted today by farmers and gardeners were the result of his efforts.

Benjamin Franklin, while hardly thought of as a farmer was passionate about the value of agriculture. Remember he was responsible for Poor Richard’s Almanac. He actually purchased a farm in 1748. Historian Earle D. Ross states: “Apparently he turned his farm into a sort of miniature experiment station, carrying on projects in drainage, in crop rotation, and especially in the utilization of the newer grasses and liming and fertilization.”  

Another outlier among the founders is Alexander Hamilton. He actually purchased a “farm” in what is now Manhattan in 1802. While he tried and appreciated his “garden”, he really was never enthralled with agriculture.

There was a consensus among most of the Founders that a strong nation and economy were to found with a solid base in agriculture. It also appealed to their sense of private property rights. John Adams stated, “equal liberty required every member of society to acquire land so that the multitude may be possessed of small estates. Whenever there is in any country uncultivated lands and unemployed poor, it is clear that the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate a natural right.” Jefferson wrote, “Agriculture ... is our wisest pursuit, because it will in the end contribute most to real wealth, good morals & happiness.”  

Their thought was that agricultural pursuits were the backbone of a truly democratic, egalitarian society, in addition to being a noble pursuit. Have a safe and happy Fourth of July.

Dr. Victor L. Martin is the agriculture instructor/coordinator for Barton Community College. He can be reached at 620-792-9207, ext. 207.