George Washington Carver's Early Years
Born a few years before slavery was abolished and often sickly as a child, George learned domestic skills, gardening, painting and drawing. He had a natural love of plants and loved experimenting with natural ways to repel pests and herbal medicines. He and his brother were taught to read and write by the Carvers, who raised the orphaned boys after slavery was abolished with every means available at the time. He was even encouraged to take their surname of Carver. Later in life, he honored Booker T. Washington by taking his name as well. George left home at age 11 to attend school and moved around quite a bit over the years, supporting himself with his painting, cooking and cleaning skills. He was finally accepted as the first black student at the Iowa Agricultural School (which ultimately became Iowa State University) and in 1894 and obtained his Bachelor of Science degree. The faculty was so impressed, they encouraged him to stay on for his Masters, which he received in 1896. With these impressive credentials, it was no wonder that Booker T. Washington would hire him to become a part of the now-famous Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) in Tuskegee Alabama.
The plight of the Southern sharecroppers
As George was taking the train south from Iowa to Alabama, he noticed something profound. The lush grain fields of the Midwest gave way to the hard-scrabble sharecropper farms with scraggly cotton fields struggling to produce. The former slaves who worked the land in exchange for a portion of the crops to the landlords, were impoverished and uneducated and he resolved to help them with his knowledge. He was convinced that the health of the people was directly connected to the health of the land. The cotton had depleted the soil of nutrients and the farmers couldn't afford fertilizers, so the yield was smaller and smaller each year. George resolved to find a way to help these farmers become self sufficient with what they had available and that happened to be their crops.
Planting peanuts, soybeans and sweet potatoes
At Tuskegee, George devoted himself to discovering ways that the Southern farmers could improve their economic situation. The soil was depleted and since very little would grow, erosion further destroyed the ecosystem. He taught the art of composting and and showed the farmers how to spread swamp mud on their fields for free fertilizer as well. By also encouraging the farmers to rotate their crops and plant peanuts, sweet potatoes and soybeans, he returned nitrogen to the soil with the legumes and gave the farmers a badly needed source of protein in their diets. The only problem was that there was little commercial demand for these crops. This prompted his research into products that could be produced from them. He is most famous for his work with peanuts and attributed to either documenting or inventing over 300 uses for the legume. Oddly enough, he didn't invent peanut butter! Mr. Carver even created a traveling, educational wagon that he took out into the rural areas to demonstrate sustainable farming practices to the people who could not afford to come to him. He devoted his life to helping people and ultimately traveled the world to share his knowledge. He lived a simple life until he died right on the campus of Tuskegee.
George Washington Carver found new uses for common plants
George Washington Carver was instrumental in reducing the South's dependence on growing cotton. His alternative crops and finding uses for them helped mold the South's agriculture into the huge business that it is today. When he arrived at Tuskegee, peanuts were not even counted as an agricultural crop in the U.S., fifty years later, it was one of the top six crops grown in this country. Peanuts can be found in so many items, from soaps and lotions to cooking oils, diesel fuel, paper, cat litter, paints and stains. Soybeans are in many products as well. It is the number two crop planted in the U.S., second only to corn. We have soy milk, soy plastics, biodiesel, animal feed, industrial lubricants and even children's crayons. Soy-based products are safer than their petroleum counterparts and are a sustainable commodity. Mr. Carver's research showed those who came after that it pays to think outside the box and look for unconventional uses for common crops. Sweet potatoes are in many popular foods, however they are also used in alcohol, paper products, inks and cloth. Incidentally, flour made from sweet potatoes is gluten-free and is used in breads and pastas. There is also sweet potato yogurt that is gluten-free and vegan.
The lasting legacy of George Washington Carver
George Washington Carver was an innovator and never feared trying something new. His vast knowledge of botany and the soil helped bring about an agricultural rebirth in the South and the effects of his experiments are still echoing in the research of today. We honor this mild-mannered, soft spoken man along with his colleagues this month and thank him for his determination and persistence in the face of ignorance and bigotry. His wish to help those less fortunate and the desire for safe and sustainable farming practices is something we, as gardeners can do in remembrance of him today.