John Binns — A Pioneer in Crop Improvement

John Alexander Binns of Loudoun County Virginia

John Alexander Binns

In 1784, Virginia farmers like John Binns in Loudoun County were having trouble with the effects of continuous farming their land. Binns was not inclined to move inland, like many East Coast farmers, and wondered if one could rejuvenate the soil. European farmers for centuries had manured the land in a variety of ways, but in the colonies, livestock largely ranged free, and was, in fact, fenced out of planted fields and gardens, making the collection of manures difficult at best.

He had learned of the use of land plaster (gypsum) and clover for that purpose in the Philadelphia neighborhood, whence it is said the system had been brought from Leipsic in Saxony.

As early as 1780 he began his experiments, using not only the land plaster and clover but practicing deeper ploughing and rotating crops. At first he was, of course, ridiculed by his farmer neighbors, for the reluctance of the husbandman to change his methods is an old, old story.

But Binns persisted. As he improved one farm and his profits rose, he purchased other worn-out lands from their discouraged owners and in time was profiting handsomely from his intelligence and industry.

After eight years of following this process, Binns found that corn yields had doubled and that yields of wheat, now a valuable export crop, had quadrupled. He named his farm Clover Hill in acknowledgement, and by the mid-1790s was buying up other properties and bringing them back into production using what was by then referred to as the “Loudoun system

At length, in 1803, his labors crowned with success and the agricultural wealth of his home county rapidly rising as a result of his long and patient work, he sat himself down to write the story of what he had accomplished.

His little book was printed in a very small edition, due probably to the high price and scarcity of paper, and was offered for sale at fifty cents, under the comprehensive title "A Treatise on Practical Farm1ng, embracing particularly the following subjects, viz. The Use of Plaster of Paris, with Directions for Using it; and General Observations on the Use of Other Manures. On Deep Ploughing; thick Sowing of Grain; Method of Preventing Fruit Trees from Decaying and Farming in General. By John A. Binns Of Loudoun County, Virginia, Farmer." It was published at "Frederick-Town, Maryland," and "Printed by John B. Colvin, Editor of the Republican Advocate, 1803."

The first edition is not available, but for the copy preserved by Jefferson and now in the Library of Congress. Thomas Jefferson, with his restless intelligence, was one of the first to acquire the book.

Jefferson, having studied it and being impressed with B1nns' success, wrote to Sir John Sinclair, the head of the English Board of Agriculture, a letter dated the 30th June, 1803, sending with it "the enclosed pamphlet on the use of gypsum by a Mr. Binns, a plain farmer, who understands handling his plough better than his pen. He is certainly something of an enthusiast in the use of this manure; but he has a right to be so. The result of his husbandry proves his confidence in it well found for from being poor, it has made him rich. The county of Loudoun in which he live(s) exhausted & wasted by bad husbandry, has, from his example, become the most productive one in Virginia: and its lands, from being the lowest, sell at the highest prices. These facts speak more strongly for his pamphlet than a better arrangement & more polished phrases would have done. Were I now a farmer I should surely adopt the gypsum ...”

In Binns' own record of his work, he comments how desperately poor the yield of grain had become in Loudoun. Some of his unplastered land yielded but five bushels of wheat to the acre and not more than three bushels of corn on a place so worn out, when he took it over in 1793, that his friends thought he "must starve on it." By 1798 he was getting from that farm 151/2 bushels of corn to the acre and the next year, on that corn land, had 27 bushels of heavy wheat per acre.

The result of Binns' work was acclaimed throughout Virginia. His methods became known as the "Loudoun system”· and the term became as significant and popularly familiar as the "Norfolk system" of farming in England. The three fundamental supports on which agriculture prosperity in Loudoun County rests were never more clearly or soundly appreciated: gypsum, clover and deep plowing

Binns died in 1813.

From the Bay Journal nov 1, 2002 and the Legends of Loudoun: An Account of the History and Homes of a Border County of Virginia's Northern Neck (1938) by Harrison Williams