These American presidents were farmers and ranchers at heart

Colleen Kottke
Wisconsin State Farmer
Conservation, tillage practices and an eye for a good steer or manure, these American presidents were attuned to agriculture and conservation in the U.S.

The men who have held the country's highest office have hailed from backgrounds as diverse as the country they governed. Occupations held by U.S. presidents include school teacher, lawyer, soldier, tailor, postmaster, haberdasher and movie actor.

Several that have worn the title of Commander in Chief had roots that ran deep on farms and ranches across America. In honor of President's Day this week, here's a look at past American presidents that were farmers and ranchers at heart.

George Washington

Although some may connect our first president's association with agriculture to a doomed cherry tree, George Washington's was quite the accomplished farmer. In later years he would tell guests visiting his home that he thought of himself "first as a farmer."

Like many farms in Virginia, the fields surrounding Mount Vernon were filled with tobacco plants. Washington soon realized that growing tobacco crops year after year took a toll on the health of the soil and concluded that the practice was unsustainable.

Instead, he reduced the number of acres devoted to tobacco and made room for grain crops including wheat. The fields of Mount Vernon were also planted with other crops such as clover, potatoes, turnips and buckwheat, thus a system of crop rotation was established. Washington would also experiment with a variety of fertilization methods during the 23 years he devoted to farming his plantation.

In later years George Washington would tell guests of his home that he thought of himself "first as a farmer".

John Adams

John Adams had much in common with the man for whom he served under for two terms as vice president. Although Adams grew up on his family's farm near Boston, he often sought out Washington's advice on the fertility of the land.

Before he threw his hat into the political ring, Adams penned a horticulture column for Boston newspapers, singing the praises of farming and the benefits of growing hemp. He also displayed a keen interest in building the fertility of the soil. He experimented with compost over the years using ashes, marsh mud, seaweed and "whatever dung he could get" from Boston.

Thomas Jefferson

Like his predecessor George Washington, the country's third president felt one of the highest callings in his life was serving as a steward of the land. Often looked upon as one of the country's early agronomists, Thomas Jefferson's contributions to agriculture were many.

A forward thinking man, Jefferson believed that man must work in harmony with the environment and protect its assets for future generations. Jefferson lamented over current farming practices where consecutive crops of corn and tobacco depleted nutrients from the soil and unprotected, sloping land left the soil vulnerable to erosion.

According to the University of Virginia, Jefferson was a leader in promoting contour planting and 7-year crop rotation plan. In addition, he advocated for planting grasses and legume crops to protect the soil from erosion.

He also experimented with fertilizers that revitalized the depleted soil and worked to establish "early nutrient management" plans, limiting a certain number of cattle to fertilize a plot of land. Jefferson is also credited with introducing several crops and vegetables into America including rice, brussels sprouts, eggplant, cauliflower, and broccoli. He also cultivated 170 varieties of fruits and 330 different kinds of vegetables while experimenting in his own gardens.

Abraham Lincoln signed into law an act of Congress establishing the United States Department of Agriculture, which he would call the "People's Department".

Abraham Lincoln

Although the nation's 16th president saw his share of work on his family's home farm and the numerous farms where he sought employment, it was the groundwork he laid for agricultural programs while in office that have had a long-lasting impact on the American people.

In 1862, Abraham Lincoln signed into law an act of Congress establishing the United States Department of Agriculture, which he would call "The People's Department." This was especially true at the time since half of the nation's people earned a living from farming.

That year Lincoln also signed the Homestead Act, which opened government-owned land to small family farmers (“homesteaders”). Many families were able to establish farms on the 160-acre tract of land after five years, while others were able to buy the land outright after six months at $1.25 per acre.

Hunter Teddy Roosevelt, left, and early conservationist John Muir stand on overlook at Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park.

Theodore Roosevelt

What began as a hunting trip for buffalo out West in 1883, would ignite a lifelong passion for conservation across the rugged land. Following his trip to the Dakota Territory, Roosevelt invested in a cattle ranch. This purchase complemented his dream of living the romanticized life of a rancher.

While he was traveling with his new wife in 1887, the harsh winter decimated cattle herds in the Badlands, costing Roosevelt half of his herd. After witnessing the devastation, Roosevelt made a decision to exit the cattle business. However, his love for the wilderness never waned and became a signature mission during his political career.

Lyndon Johnson

While serving as America's 36th president in the White House in Washington D.C., Lyndon Johnson's attention was never far from his cattle ranch in Stonewall, Texas. As a young boy, Johnson aspired to run a ranch someday, and that dream was realized after his widowed aunt left him her "dilapidated 250-acre ranch." 

The LBJ Ranch would grow from 250 to 2700 acres and become the home to a 400 head herd of registered Hereford cattle. Johnson would run the ranch all through his career in Washington, keeping tabs on the operation through daily phone calls — much to the annoyance of the ranch foreman.

President Lyndon Johnson proves he's a pretty good cowhand as he puts his horse, Lady B, through the paces with a Hereford yearling on his LBJ Ranch near Stonewall, Texas.

Political dignitaries and guests (including the Rev. Billy Graham) were often treated to high-speed tours of the ranch in Lincoln Continental convertibles followed by a stop at the Texas White House. In addition to growing over 1000 acres of improved varieties of grasses, the Texas-born president also built one of the first liquid fertilizer plants in the area.

During his time in office, Johnson signed into law 300 bills dealing with environmental protection and resource conservation.

President Jimmy Carter was widely known as the peanut farmer from Georgia.

Jimmy Carter

President Jimmy Carter was widely known as the peanut farmer from Georgia. While he worked on his parents' farm as a child, it was Carter's dream to become an officer in the Navy.

When his father died in the mid-1950s, Carter was at a crossroads: continue his career in the Navy or return home to Plains, Georgia. Carter returned to the farm that had fallen on hard times and was in danger of being sold.

Rolling up his sleeves, Carter worked hard to make the farm profitable again by the end of the decade despite a drought and boycotts against his business due to Civil Rights issues.