Celebrating Black History Month: George Washington Carver
Each February, we have the opportunity to reflect on and celebrate the contributions of Black Americans. In our industry, one of the most notable agricultural scientists and inventors of the modern era was George Washington Carver. Many of his methods remain relevant for maintaining soil health and for organic farming and gardening.
Even at an early age, Carver was fascinated by nature and often collected herbs and flowers and experimented with natural pesticides and fertilizers. His ability to cure failing crops and plants earned him the nickname the “plant doctor” in his community.
His passion for horticulture led him to Iowa State Agricultural School, where he earned a master’s in agriculture in 1896. The research he did there impressed Booker T. Washington, who invited Carver to help start an agricultural school at Tuskegee College in Alabama, where Carver became a beloved professor.
Carver’s influence expanded beyond the classroom. He recognized that soil in many southern states had been stripped of essential nutrients like nitrogen due to years of planting cotton, resulting in low yields. Through his research, he developed a new method for crop rotation. By alternating cotton crops with other produce like peanuts, soy beans, and sweet potatoes, nitrogen was reintroduced to the soil and increased its productivity. Crop rotation also allowed southern farmers to grow and sell products besides cotton, thus diversifying the market.
In addition to crop rotation, Carver promoted using compost to reintroduce nutrients and add organic matter to the soil. He taught farmers they could enrich croplands with “swamp muck” (organic matter) instead of expensive fertilizers. He showed them that using compost to revitalize the soil not only increased its productivity, but was also more economical. Using compost to build soil remains a critical practice in organic farming and gardening today.
Carver devoted much of his life to teaching Black farmers how to use his techniques to achieve a measure of independence. He wanted to liberate Black farmers from being dependent on white landowners; helping them to grow more food while spending less money got them closer to food sovereignty, something Carver understood was essential to their liberation.
A selfless educator, he hosted free seminars at the university and wrote bulletins filled with farming advice and recipes. He even designed a mobile classroom called the Jesup Agricultural Wagon, and traveled to distant counties to offer hands-on demonstrations.
Throughout his life, Carver received many awards and accolades, including numerous patents for his agricultural inventions. We owe Mr. Carver a debt of gratitude for his innovative contributions to agricultural science. His work benefitted citizens all across the United States, and his ideas for focusing on renewable resources and sustainable agricultural practices continue to resonate and inspire today.