April 13 is Thomas Jefferson's Birthday
"The greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add a useful plant to its culture." -Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson gave us the Declaration of Independence but he was also passionate about developing a strong and innovative agriculture in the new nation. He searched high and low for new crops that would flourish on American farms. On a trip to Europe, he even filled his pockets with rice from Italy - risking arrest for smuggling - so he could carry it home and try it out in South Carolina. He believed agriculture was the "surest road to affluence and best preservative of morals."
Thomas Jefferson was a dedicated farmer, and his interest in agriculture is evident in much of his writing. His home, "Monticello," included vegetable gardens, flower gardens, orchards, vineyards, grain fields, and ornamental landscapes.
In his gardens he grew 170 varieties of fruit, 330 varieties of vegetables, and ornamental plants and flowers. He grew Mexican varieties of peppers, beans collected by Lewis and Clark, broccoli from Italy. The English pea was his favorite vegetable, and he had a Garden Book in which he kept exhaustive notes on the states of his turnips, lettuce, artichokes, tomatoes, eggplants and squash - when each variety was sown, when it was mulched and how, when the first leaves or fruits appeared, which varieties were tastiest. His household ate from the garden. Some of the varieties that Jefferson cultivated at Monticello have been passed down as heirloom vegetables, and people still plant them in their backyard gardens. Overall, he had about 5,000 acres of farmland, planted mostly in wheat and other grains.
In addition to his work improving plant varieties, Jefferson also worked on improving agricultural tools. The moldboard plow was one of his inventions.
For more on the development of technology in agriculture, see the OAITC lesson "Agriculture in Motion."
Thomas Jefferson's Farming Failures (Modern Farmer)
Writing Prompt: Write a letter to Thomas Jefferson and tell him how agriculture is different today compared with how it was in his day.
Grigsby, Susan, and Nicole Tadgell, First Peas to the Table: How Thomas Jefferson Inspired a School Garden, Albert Whitman, 2012. (Grades 1-4)
Murphy, Frank, Thomas Jefferson's Feast, Random House for Young Readers, 2003. (Grades PreK-2)
Recommended reading for teachers: Wulf, Andrea, Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation
Oklahoma Ag in the Classroom is a program of the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service, the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry and the Oklahoma State Department of Education.