Thomas Jefferson, Farmer
Jefferson extolled the virtues of the agrarian life. He was a talented landscape architect and avid gardener. He considered himself a farmer by profession and was continually searching for more progressive ways to work his plantations. He often wished for more private time to pursue these interests.
He was always interested in new crops and machinery. Soil conservation was a particular passion. He was zealous about the need for farmers to share innovative ideas, improved crops, and new machinery. He invented a more efficient plow but never patented his design so that other farmers could freely benefit from the idea.
Jefferson's designs for an improved "mouldboard of least resistance" won him a Gold Medal from the French Society of Agriculture in 1809.
Jefferson managed his vast estate in Bedford using a traditional Virginia plantation system. He divided the land into separate farms, each with a different overseer, work force, dwelling houses, and farm buildings. By the time Jefferson resided at Poplar Forest, there were two active farms – Tomahawk and Bear Creek.
Tobacco and wheat were the cash crops at Poplar Forest and supplied him with a significant portion of his income. Jefferson considered tobacco "infinitely wretched" because it depleted the soil and provided no food for the farmer or his work force. Getting tobacco to market took eighteen months of hard labor. Poor weather, economic instability, or mishandling could quickly eliminate a season's profits. Wheat, Jefferson argued, was "the reverse in every circumstance". It preserved the soil's fertility and fed the laborers.
In 1811, writing from Poplar Forest, Jefferson described his crop rotations to his friend and fellow farmer, Charles Willson Peale, "Our rotations are corn, wheat & clover, or corn, wheat, clover and clover, or wheat, corn, wheat, clover and clover, preceding the clover by a plaistering, but some instead of clover, substitute mere rest." Clover, when planted with tobacco and wheat, restored the soil's fertility.
“We are suffering from drought terribly at this place. Half a crop of wheat, and tobacco, and two-thirds a crop of corn are the most we can expect. We abound in the luxury of the peach, these being as fine here now as we used to have in Albemarle 30 years ago and indeed as fine as I ever saw any where.”
Thomas Jefferson to Martha Jefferson Randolph August 31, 1815