President’s Day and Agriculture

(AgInsider) As we near George Washington’s birthday Feb. 22 and celebrate Presidents’ Day Feb. 21 (which has traditionally honored both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln), it is an opportunity to look back at the impact that those presidents had on agriculture in the United States.

Many will honor the efforts of George Washington in the Revolutionary War and Abraham Lincoln in the Civil War but often their involvement in agriculture, farming and the establishment of the Land Grant System (of which Cornell is part of!) is overlooked.

According to the USDA, George Washington was principally a tobacco farmer while also growing other commodities such as wheat, corn, carrots and cabbage. What is often not realized is that George Washington could easily be considered the “father of American agriculture” for his role in conducting agricultural experiments.

Washington was enriching his soil with compost long before it was common practice and he showed through experimentation how compost would increase crop productivity. He was also one of the first to use a seven-year crop rotation plan. Both of these practices are still used today more than 220 years after his death.

“It will not be doubted that with reference either to individual or national welfare, agriculture is of primary importance. In proportion as nations advance in population and other circumstances of maturity this truth becomes more apparent, and renders the cultivation of the soil more and more an object of public patronage.” – George Washington

Abraham Lincoln addressed the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society Sept. 30, 1859 at its annual fair in Milwaukee. It ended up being the only extended discussion ever documented of Abraham Lincoln discussing agriculture.

“But farmers, being the most numerous class, it follows that their interest is the largest interest. It also follows that that interest is most worthy of all to be cherished and cultivated – that if there be inevitable conflict between that interest and any other, that other should yield.” – Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln’s understanding of and passion for farms and farming led to the establishment of the United States Department of Agriculture in 1862. That same year, the Morrill Land Grant Act was also established and just three years later Cornell University was chartered as the first of the Land Grant University.

With a goal of merging practical scientific method and technical education, each land grant university has a three-prong mission of teaching, research and extension.

Though the impact that both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln have made on what the United States is today is often recognized, the influence that they both had on agriculture is less often celebrated. As we honor these presidents Feb. 21, please take a moment to appreciate their lesser known support of agriculture in the United States.

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