Stories | February 8, 2018 | Read Time: 7 minutes
More than Peanuts: George Washington Carver’s Agricultural Contributions
Many people know George Washington Carver as “the peanut man” for his promotion of more than 300 uses for the legume, but they don’t know why he was nuts for peanuts. Carver’s peanut research was actually a side project to support his primary passion—educating southern farmers on new farming practices in an effort to ensure their success despite the area’s poor soil health.
“The tenets that Carver founded and publicized were really good for agriculture then and today,” said Jennifer Yates, Monsanto’s Wheat Breeding Lead. Being interested in plant genetics from a young age, Yates explored Carver’s life and accomplishments for a school project. “I was surprised by how much more he did, especially for soil health.”
Cotton, Soil Depletion, and Peanuts as a Cash Crop
In the early twentieth century, southern farmers were facing severe soil depletion from years of planting cotton and tobacco season after season. Carver believed that by rotating their crop each year, farmers could replenish some of the nutrients depleted by the previous year’s crops.
“He worked to educate farmers on the idea of rotating crops, specifically legumes like peanuts, to replenish the soil’s nitrogen, and instill in them the importance of taking care of your soil,” Yates explained.
However, farmers couldn’t see the money in growing peanuts and were slow to adopt the practice. Carver was determined that alternating peanuts with cotton would help rural, impoverished, southern, often African American, farmers succeed. So, he began experimenting and George “the Peanut Man’ Carver was born.
“Of all the money crops grown, perhaps there are none more promising than the peanut in its several varieties and their almost limitless possibilities,” Carver said in his bulletin called 105 Different Ways to Prepare the Peanut for the Table.
Carver used peanuts for soup, bread, cookies, bars, wafers, doughnuts, meal, lard, milk, butter and many more. Outside of the kitchen, he created soap, wood stains and dyes, face powder, axle grease, shampoo, and even printer ink—all out of peanuts. To promote these uses, Carver published free bulletins that included how-tos and recipes for housewives.
“Carver had to be extremely resourceful and creative to both invent and expose farmers to those inventions with limited resources as an African American academic working for an African American institution in the segregated South of early 20th century America,” Yates said. “In addition, he shared this knowledge willingly with all farmers because he genuinely wanted Southern farmers to succeed.”
In another effort to expand the reach of his research, Carver created, though never toured with, the Booker T. Washington School on Wheels. Both forms of education followed Carver’s “threefold approach” by including “simple cultivation information for farmers, a little science for teachers, and some recipes for housewives.”
The Booker T. Washington School on Wheels, or the Jessup Wagon, was a mobile laboratory and classroom staffed by four or five teachers passionate about educating farmers about what they called “scientific farming” or what we would call today “modern agriculture.” Equipped with everything the teachers would need, the Jessop Wagon travelled the back roads of the Southern U.S. stopping to provide field demonstrations, teaching farmers about soil health.
In its early days, the Jessup Wagon was a horse drawn wagon known as the Jessup Agricultural Wagon. Eventually, the wagon was upgraded to a mechanized truck and started adding county fairs and community gatherings to its circuit.
As the wagon continued to evolve, so did its name. The Booker T. Washington School on Wheels added a nurse, a United States Department of Agriculture home demonstration agent, and an architect. These additions were intended to expose rural farmers to the latest techniques in not just farming but also home maintenance, domestic chores, first aid, and more as well as showcase Carver’s inventions and research.
Of all the money crops grown, perhaps there are none more promising than the peanut in its several varieties and their almost limitless possibilities.
Foreshadowing the Future of Plant Breeding and Carver’s Other Innovations
Carver was also extremely interested in breeding crops for specific traits. In his master thesis, “Plants as Modified by Man,” Carver discussed the need for man’s intervention in plant breeding and even outlined some of his work in the area. He believed what nature provided was just a starting point for unleashing a plant’s potential. Carver wrote, “… nature did not perfect her fruits and flowers to suit the fastidious taste of men but left this for him to do, and now he is exercising that right to a degree that was never dreamed of a few years ago.” Carver claimed that through selection, fertilization, and cultivation man could double, triple, and even quadruple yields.
“His work in breeding was eerily foreshadowing,” Yates said. “I can’t say what he would think of what we’re doing today with genetic modification and gene editing, but it is definitely an extension of Carver’s work.”
In addition to his peanut work, Carver saw potential in other plants, creating a plethora of alternative uses for the sweet potato, soybeans, and cotton. While completing his Master’s degree, and working as director of the Iowa State Experimental Station, Carver discovered two types of fungi which were later named after him. At Tuskegee, he worked to increase soil health through conservation tillage, allowing harvest scraps to fertilize the land, and crop rotation. Carver even recognized the need to protect our pollinators—bees—and their natural habitats, something we’re still striving for today.
Whatever he was working on, Carver’s main objective was environmental sustainability. He wanted to ensure that farmers had the tools available to continue living on and farming their land.
Many have questioned the validity of Carver’s scientific findings, in part due to the fact that he rarely wrote down his formulations but also because of the environment he worked in. Carver pioneered farmer education from his makeshift lab of piecemeal equipment at Tuskegee. In whatever manner his discoveries were made, we cannot refute the lasting impact they have had on modern agriculture.
Soil health is still a major consideration for farmers and practices Carver pioneered, or variations and advancements based on them, are still in use today. Farmers still use crop rotation as a way to replenish their fields’ nutrients. Plant breeders are still searching for the right combination of traits to increase yield as well as adapt crops to the needs of the world and its growing population. Conservation and no-till practices are being adopted, where appropriate, around the world. And yes, people are still using his peanut recipes.