The following is an excerpt/edited version of a blog originally published by the Oak Spring Garden Foundation in Upperville, VA. The original article can be found at https://www.osgf.org/blog/george-washington-carver.
Carver’s regenerative farming methods, novel educational approaches, and unique environmental ethics are more compelling today than his Peanut Man celebrity.
Whereas this anomalous celebrity illuminates a particular zeitgeist of bygone times, his legacy of agricultural innovation is far less ahistorical. Acknowledging Carver’s remarkable work recognizes and centers African American technologies and expertise in agricultural, environmental, and community development strategies used today. Carver’s work in Tuskegee, AL and his methods of agriculture were out of step with his times, but not with the future.
The Foundation of Regenerative Agriculture as We Know It.
Some of Carver’s most appreciable work occurred during his years as a Faculty member at the Tuskegee Institute. His early teachings are fundamental to regenerative agriculture as we know it today. Carver sought to reinvigorate southern soils left degraded by years of cotton production. He developed crop rotation methods to introduce nitrogen fixing crops, like peanuts, into agriculture regimes. This helped improve soil health, while also diversifying farm products and income. To replace expensive chemical inputs, Carver advocated for amending the soil with locally available compost and swamp muck. He advocated for planting diversified crops, as both ecological insurance and a source of food. Carver strove to enable African American farmers to transform their farms into more productive and self sufficient entities as a means to alleviate poverty and debt.
Carver developed enterprising outreach methods to reach a larger portion of the population. While at the Tuskegee Institute, he conducted experiments and put on demonstrations on the campus’s farm. He hosted “Farmers Institutes” which were monthly meetings where local farmers were offered lessons and hands-on learning. Carver authored and distributed bulletins as well, which included practical advice and recipes for local farming families. One of his most well known outreach efforts was the Jessup Wagon (often spelled Jesup). The Jessup wagon was a mobile classroom that allowed for in-the-field outreach and demonstration. This outreach model proved so popular and successful it was later adopted by the USDA.
Carver is often criticized for being apolitical, a racial accommodationist, or for failing to use his celebrity to advance a political agenda. However, many see Carver’s agricultural work as inherently political. When Carver arrived at Tuskegee, he found the political, social, and economic orders to closely resemble the plantation system. Carver taught black farmers to use natural materials as a means to ultimately rid themselves of the cycle of debt and dependence on white landowners and economic institutions. In an assessment of Tuskegee outreach efforts during Carver’s tenure, Karen Ferguson points out that any effort “to create an independent yeomanry through land ownership and self-sufficiency in a region where white prosperity depended on cotton monoculture and the subjugation of black labor” was manifestly subversive (qtd. by Hersey). As such, “[….] it is not at all surprising that Carver’s campaign met with only limited success. Not only did it challenge the economic and political culture of the South, along with some significant cultural norms of the region’s people-both black and white” (Hersey).
An Environmental Ethic for Today
Recent scholarship has suggested that Carver’s accomplishments were amplified because of his accommodationist attitude and apparent utility. He “was used as a symbol by a wide range of people with incredibly diverse — and often conflicting — agendas. Many black folks cited him as proof of the value of education [….] And many whites pointed to him as proof that blacks could succeed without taking apart the system of Jim Crow” (Code Switch). There is a lot of work studying how and why Carver was cast and celebrated as an exceptional character. However, these inquiries tend to overshadow Carver’s truly exemplary work developing and teaching ecologically based agricultural techniques.
Carver’s impressive agriculture legacy remains elusive not only because it is overshadowed by his mythical status as the Peanut Man, but also because it doesn’t fit neatly into prevailing environmental or agricultural histories. His work doesn’t fit into agricultural history because it was too environmentally minded; it doesn’t fit into environmental narratives because it was too agriculturally focused. Out of step with both the industrial agriculture and the conservation movements of the 1920’s and 30’s, Carver’s work was excluded from the historical narratives of both fields.
Carver’s work and beliefs provide a compelling narrative of ecological ethics in a region and field marginalized in environmental history. The culmination of Carver’s extensive natural knowledge, ecological education, and personal beliefs present a unique environmental ethic — one certainly worth studying today.
Hersey, M. “Hints and Suggestions to Farmers: George Washington Carver and Rural Conservation in the South.” Environmental History, vol. 11, no. 2, 2006, pp. 239–268., doi:10.1093/envhis/11.2.239.