George Washington's Mount Vernon estate totaled nearly eight thousand acres at its completion and was divided into five farms, each a complete unit with its own overseers, work force of slaves, livestock, equipment, and buildings. The Mansion House Farm was not a farm in the typical sense of the word—no large-scale cultivation of field crops was carried on around the home house.
Rather, the five hundred acres directly around the mansion were developed as a gentleman's country seat, a new world version of an English country house of the period. Located within a deep border of woods were rolling meadows, vistas, and groves of trees.
Between the mansion and the river shore was an extensive park, and below the kitchen garden was an enclosed vineyard. Small areas were cultivated, but these were usually restricted to testing new crops and agricultural methods. The four farms, River, Muddy Hole, Dogue, and Union were the focus of intensive agricultural activity. As many as two hundred slaves and other workers lived on the farms, and more than three thousand acres were under cultivation.
Despite the burdens of the public career that diverted Washington's attention from Mount Vernon, he was forward-thinking in terms of agricultural planning. Throughout Washington's life he was an agricultural pioneer, constantly experimenting with new crops and sophisticated techniques while working to improve his farms. When he took on the management of Mount Vernon in the 1750s, Washington decided to raise tobacco, the traditional staple crop that had dominated Virginia society and economy for more than a century. However, that decision would shift.
Tobacco cultivation proved to be largely disadvantageous. Tobacco crops depleted soil, and as a commodity it depended on an uncertain and distant foreign market. As a result, Washington began to seek new crops to replace tobacco. In the end, it was wheat that eclipsed tobacco as the principal Mount Vernon crop. And by 1767, Washington abandoned the leaf altogether. The shift was one of profound importance for Mount Vernon and its owner.
Washington transitioned into a farmer, producing grains and food crops, rather than a planter locked into a single staple. The shift to farming allowed Washington to introduce more innovative practices such as crop rotation and intensive plowing. By the time he was called away to take command of the Continental Army in 1775, Mount Vernon was a thriving agricultural enterprise, though Washington's eight-year absence during the war interrupted its progress.
It was after the Revolutionary War that George Washington began his correspondence with several leading English agronomists. From them he imported not only ideas but also skilled workers, new crops, and equipment. Not satisfied with the three-year crop rotation he had been using, Washington designed complex six- and seven-year systems. He also experimented tirelessly with various fertilizers and crops. By the end of his life he had raised or tested nearly sixty different crops.
During his periods of residence at Mount Vernon, Washington personally directed activities on the farms. It was his custom to make a daily tour of inspection, a twenty mile horseback ride. On Saturdays, farm managers, including the overseers of the four farms and specialized work crews, would report to Washington on the week's activities. During the eight years of the presidency, reports were sent weekly by post to the seat of government with the manager's covering letter. The President responded at length each week, questioning omissions and discrepancies, cautioning, directing, and exhorting. Even while serving as the head of a nation, Washington remained interested in the agricultural development of Mount Vernon.
The Agricultural Papers of George Washington. Boston: R.G. Badger, 1919.
Letters from His Excellency General Washington, to Arthur Young, ESQ. London: W.J. and J. Richardson, 1801.