Sometimes called the world’s second oldest profession, farming has been the career of choice for countless individuals over the millenia. Among these countless farmers you’ll find heads of state, royalty, actors, and other renowned individuals who made contributions to the history of both farming and mankind.
While all of the 25 farmers-turned-famous highlighted in this article were not proponents of organic methods, we’ve highlighted several that did promote organic agriculture and other sustainable practices. Enjoy!
Perhaps most remembered for smashing a grapefruit into the face of Mae West in The Public Enemy, James Cagney was a passionate farmer, owning one each on the east and west coasts where he bred and raised cattle and horses. Cagney was also interested in soil conservation, lecturing on the subject when awarded an honorary degree from Rollins College.
“Soil conservation is more than a hobby with Cagney. It is a passionate preoccupation. In the east, he is forever wrestling with problems and devices for replenishing the bleached-out soil on his farm so that his prize breed of Highland cattle can get the nourishment to which their forbears in Scotland were accustomed. In California, where he raises trotting horses of the celebrated Morgan strain, his problems are more concerned with providing water for the soil through irrigation.” ~Ottawa Citizen
You don’t become the king of kernels without some experience in agriculture. Orville, who grew up in Indiana, was raised on a farm, and often sold — can you guess what? — popcorn from a roadside stand. Orville would go on to attend Purdue University, where he was a member of an agriculture-focused fraternity and earned a degree in agronomy.
Though Sam Houston, arguably Texas’ most famous historical figure, was never quite fond of farming (he may have even run away from home to avoid it!), he was in fact a farmer, living his first 16-years alongside his 8 siblings in the fields of Virginia and Tennessee, where he very often had to be drug back to the fields after wandering off in boredom.
Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, Founding Father and 3rd President of the United States, was very much an experimental farmer, one who focused on scientific agriculture techniques. His farm, a 5,000 acre plantation named Monticello, served as a source of food for his family and as a form of laboratory. Jefferson is reported to have experimented with over 300 varieties of more than seventy species of vegetables from all around the world and also experimented with growing fruit, choosing to focus on pears, plums, almonds, and apricots.
“From breakfast, or noon at the latest, to dinner, I am mostly on horseback, attending to my farm or other concerns, which I find healthful to my body, mind, and affairs.” ~Thomas Jefferson
Another rebellious soul, Sir Isaac Newton was born into a farming family, his father a prosperous farmer by the same name (minus the Sir of course). Luckily, for science, Sir Isaac Newton ditched his hoe and began focusing on academia.
The Prince of Wales
Scientist farmers, Commander in Chief farmers, Hollywood farmers, and yes, even royal farmers. Prince Charles, a passionate advocate of organic farming, converted the Duchy home farm to a completely organic system in the mid-80s to showcase both its environmental and commercial benefits.
“Capitalism ultimately depends on capital, but our capital depends on nature’s capital. The two are in fact inseparable.” ~Prince Charles
Best known for the pork sausage found on the menus of his self-named restaurants, Bob Evans was also a champion of nature conservation for over 40 years, encouraging his fellow farmers to utilize more efficient grazing techniques that are better for the environment. He was honored three times by the National Wildlife Federation for his efforts.
At the age of 5, Johnny Cash began working and singing in the cotton fields alongside his family. The family farm, 20 acres of cotton and other seasonal crops, was flooded on at least two occasions and even inspired Cash to write “Five Feet High and Rising.”
Eddie Albert and Tom Lester of Green Acres
These two turned out to be perfect cast members for Green Acres. Eddie Albert, who played the lead role, Oliver Wendell Douglas, an accomplished lawyer from New York who moved to the countryside to fulfill his lifelong dream of becoming a farmer, was an advocate of organic farming and actually influenced Tom Lester, the glib, oft-aloof “Eb Dawson,” to take up organic farming as well.
“I grew up on a farm, and now I own it. Eddie Albert got me involved in organic farming.” ~Tom Lester
“Albert was also very involved in organic farming and gardening, as evidenced by the crops that could be found at his Amalfi home in the front and back yards. Depending on the season, he grew tomatoes, radishes, beets, carrots, chives, rosemary, and even tall rows of corn. Albert took his farming skills to the inner-city in the 1970′s, establishing City Children’s Farms in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and many other cities.” ~Pacific Palisades Post
The “Great Compromiser,” as he was known, Henry Clay was perhaps the greatest senator (Kentucky) in U.S. history, serving three terms as Speaker of the House and even a stint as Secretary of State. However, despite Clay’s obvious political prowess, he preferred spending his time on the farm and practiced a scientific method of agriculture, developing his estate into a model of progressive farming. Clay’s agrarian passion also included breeding and raising cattle.
Ulysses S. Grant
Ulysses S. Grant, the 18th President of the United States and the most famous general of the Civil War, was also a farmer, having tended 60 acres worth of land just outside St. Louis from 1858-1865. Luckily for Americans, he was a failure at farming, which lead to a career in the military and his eventual Presidency.
Though she only recently began farming, Roseanne chose to make a reality television show out of her organic macadamia nut farming venture. Unfortunately, Roseanne’s Nuts, the title of the show, was short-lived, only lasting from July to September of 2011 before Lifetime chose to cancel it.
“I’m a farmer now, and it’s fantastic… My goal is to be totally self-sufficient and grow everything that I eat. There’s something about earning your dinner that’s cool… I got the fame and the fortune that I always wanted. But I have to say what I have now, it’s even better.” ~Roseanne Barr
Wendell Berry is a man of elegant words, an intellectual responsible for more than forty books of fiction, poetry and essays. An activist against war and other social end economic issues, Wendell has been farming the same hillside acreage for forty years, a plot of land that’s been in his family’s hands since the 1800s.
“We need a 50-year farm bill that addresses forthrightly the problems of soil loss and degradation, toxic pollution, fossil-fuel dependency and the destruction of rural communities.” ~Wes Jackson & Wendell Berry
“If you impose this program (National Animal Identification System) on the small farmers, who are already overburdened, you’re going to have to send the police for me. I’m 75 years old. I’ve about completed my responsibilities to my family. I’ll lose very little in going to jail in opposition to your program – and I’ll have to do it. Because I will be, in every way that I can conceive of, a non-cooperator.” ~Wendell Berry
Another President with farming experience, Harry S. Truman lived and worked on his family’s Missouri farm from 1906-1917, quitting his job as a banker at the age of twenty-two to do so. Though he would eventually sell the farm and return to the city, the farm vote was largely responsible for him becoming President.
“…All sorts of wagers were made that I wouldn’t stay over ten days–two weeks–a month–a year at the outside. I stayed ten years…. I thought maybe by cussing mules and plowing corn I could perhaps overcome my shyness and amount to something.” ~Harry Truman
“A riding plow gives one a chance to think of all the meanness he ever did and all he ever intends to do. I have memorized a whole book while plowing forty acres.” ~Harry Truman
Though Benjamin spent most of his time in the city, he was incredibly passionate about agriculture, which he called “the only honest way, wherein man receives a real increase of the seed thrown into the ground in the kind of continual miracle, wrought by the hand of God in his favor, as a reward for his innocent life and his virtuous industry.” Throughout his life, he promoted the distribution of agricultural knowledge and products between nations, wrote several books and essays on the subject of agriculture and was responsible for introducing Scotch kale, Swiss barley, Chinese rhubarb, and kohlrabi to America from Europe.
“There seem to be but three ways for a nation to acquire wealth. The first is by war, as the Romans did, in plundering their conquered neighbors. This is robbery. The second by commerce, which is generally cheating. The third by agriculture, the only honest way, wherein man receives a real increase of the seed thrown into the ground, in a kind of continual miracle, wrought by the hand of God in his favor, as a reward for his innocent life and his virtuous industry.” ~Benjamin Franklin
Catherine Hagel, an American woman, was once the third-oldest validated person in the world. She lived to the age of 114, but what you may find even more interesting is that she farmed until the age of 100!
“Hagel’s husband died in 1966 at age 74. Hagel remained on the 40-acre farm until 14 years ago — 20 years after her family first tried to persuade her to leave…” ~Star Tribune
The son of a peanut farmer, Jimmy Carter’s connection with farming began at a young age. In high school, Jimmy became a member of Future Farmers of America and later joined the Naval Academy. While in the military, Jimmy’s father passed away and the future President was forced to resign his naval commission in order to return with his family to Georgia and take over the family peanut farm. Carter quickly made a success of his late father’s business, soon after becoming governor of Georgia and eventually the 39th President of the United States and Nobel Peace Prize winner.
“I started out when I was five years old, going out to my father’s field and pulling peanuts up out of the ground.” ~Jimmy Carter
Considered the father of guerrilla warfare, Francis Marion, or the “Swamp Fox,” served in the American Revolutionary War, wreaking havoc on the British in their attempts to occupy South Carolina. However, prior to becoming a war hero, Francis Marion joined the crew of a ship and headed to the West Indies. Disaster struck when a whale rammed their schooner, forcing Marion and the rest of the crew onto a smaller boat. Unable to fetch any food or water from the ship prior to it sinking, they remained at sea for six days before finally reaching the safety of land. Needless to say, young Francis, only fifteen-years-old at the time, quickly returned to South Carolina and took up farming before solidifying his place in history.
Winner of the 1993 Main Event at the World Series of Poker, Jim Bechtel earned $1,000,000, a fortune for the typical cotton farmer, which is just what he was when he entered his first WSOP in 1979, finishing 2nd in the $1,500 no limit Texas hold ‘em event. Jim’s career earnings now exceed a whopping $2,500,000.
Perhaps the most successful strongman competitor in history, Magnus Samuelsson has made it to the World’s Strongest Man podium five times and was once the champion. Some of Magnus’ other feats include breaking a man’s arm en route to a European arm wrestling championship, winning Sweden’s version of Dancing with the Stars, and competing in a World Rally Championship event, where he finished 35th of 55. To top it all off, he’s a full-time dairy farmer.
Dwight D. Eisenhower
Dwight D. Eisenhower was a 5-star general in the United States Army and also its 34th President. During World War II, Eisenhower served as Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces and was responsible for supervising the invasion of North Africa along with the invasion of France and Germany from the Western Front. Like many Presidents before him, Ike, as he was also known, came from a family of farmers. In 1950, just a few years before becoming President, Eisenhower returned to his roots, purchasing a farm adjacent to the battlefield at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The farm was plagued by poor, worn out soil, which the soon-to-be President considered the perfect testing ground for his life-long interest in soil conservation.
“I tell all the same thing—I just want to be a one mule farmer in Virginia or Georgia or Tennessee.” ~Dwight D. Eisenhower
Richard William Pearse was a New Zealand farmer and inventor who, according to witnesses, beat the Wright brothers to flight when he flew and landed his plane on March 31st, 1903, nine months prior to the Wright brothers’ own historic flight.
“Pearse’s designs and achievements remained virtually unknown beyond the few who witnessed them, and they had no impact on his contemporary aviation designers. However, his concepts had much in common with modern aircraft design, and others later implemented these concepts without knowing of Pearse’s efforts. As a result some have described Pearse as a man ahead of his time.”
“Pearse must be the first and the only aviator who had at that time designed his own unique internal combustion engine; and designed his own aircraft (pre-dating the microlight by about seventy years).” ~Geoff Rodliffe
Vaughn Smith, founder of Frontline Television News, once a collective of freelance video journalists, made his name capturing footage of wars and conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya, Kosovo, and more. He holds the distinction of being the only person to capture uncontrolled footage of the Gulf War, when he bluffed his way into an active duty role while dressed as a British officer in 1991. Presently, Smith owns and operates the Frontline Club, a London institution which aims to champion independent journalism and provide insight concerning international news and its coverage. The club boasts a restaurant that Vaughn keeps stocked with produce from his mixed organic farm, a farm which has been in his family’s care for over three centuries.
“Nowhere else within 100 miles sources raw materials from its own farm, offers wines at not much above retail prices, and has a chef who puts his heart into every dish.”
“All our animals are free range and naturally reared. Sources for ingredients that we cannot supply ourselves are carefully considered: we support small high-quality independent producers such as artisanal cheesemakers, a forager and various producers within Borough Market. All of the fish we serve is caught sustainably from day boats off the southwest coast of England..”
One of the most polarizing figures in English history, Oliver Cromwell was responsible for overthrowing the English monarchy and instituting a republic in 1649. Though the Commonwealth of England was short-lived, it remains the only time in English history that the country was ruled by someone other than a king or queen. Some English consider Cromwell a hero (royalists obviously do not). The Dutch, however, who were allies of the English until Cromwell took England to war against them, consider him a power hungry usurper. He also brutally conquered Ireland and Scotland, “uniting” the three countries with himself as dictator for life, leaving the Irish and Scots with little good to say about England’s Lord Protector. Prior to solidifying himself in world history, Cromwell was your typical commoner, a struggling tenant farmer who kept chickens and sheep, selling their eggs and wool to support himself. He certainly would not have been remembered for that.
“I would have been glad to have lived under my wood side, and to have kept a flock of sheep, rather than to have undertaken this government.” ~Oliver Cromwell
Howard Graham Buffett
Howard Buffett, a corn and soybean farmer, is the eldest son of billionaire investor Warren Buffet and his designated successor. An advocate of no-till conservation, his thesis, The Partnership of Biodiversity and High-Yield Agricultural Production, was published by Harvard in 1996. Mr. Buffett also founded the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, an organization that aims to improve the standard of living and quality of life for the world’s most impoverished nations through agricultural resource development for smallholder and subsistence farmers.