The pioneer farm here at Mount Vernon is a smaller representation of Washington’s approach to farming in the 18th century.
When George Washington inherits Mount Vernon, it is a 2,100 acre tobacco plantation. Having tobacco as a cash crop proves difficult for Washington for many reasons. Tobacco is labor intensive, hard on the soil and the economics of the tobacco trade pushes Washington into debt.
At this time, England regulates the tobacco trade to support the mercantile system. Washington is growing, harvesting, packing, and shipping tobacco in exchange for finished goods. With the increased competition from other tobacco growing colonies and falling tobacco process, debt for Washington is inevitable and it was debt, which pushed Washington to find a new cash crop.
Washington started replacing the nutrients in his soil. Washington begins a focused, systematic, approach to farming. He begins reading everything he can on innovative farming techniques to advance the improvement of the soil. Of particular interest to Washington is a new concept of farming called crop rotation. Traditionally practiced in a 3-4 year system, Washington adjusts his own rotation to embrace a seven year cycle. The adoption of the seven year crop rotation approach will begin to nourish his nutrient depleted soil. With wheat as his new cash crop, two of the seven fields will be devoted to wheat. He will have fields of green manures- plants such as clover, cowpeas, buckwheat, and turnips that are grown and plowed back into the soil, releasing essential nutrients, e.g. nitrogen. Other fields are in cereal grains and the last three fields are planted pasture grasses and a field integrated with corn and potatoes.
Because wheat and the other crops in his rotation are far less labor-intensive to maintain, Washington is able to diversify his labor force, moving many of his slaves from the fields into skill trade positions.