One of the greatest contributors to agriculture was the often overlooked George Washington Carver. He was born a slave and was very poor as a youth. He had a serious illness when young that left him unable to do the hard field work. However, he took an interest in plants and the best way to grow the crops.
As a youth, he was known as the "plant doctor" on the farming community he lived in because of his knowledge and understanding of plants. He attended Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa, and then went to Iowa Agricultural College (now Iowa State University) where he earned both undergraduate and master's degrees in agricultural science.
Afterward, he spent most of the rest of his life at Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, Ala. He served as the school's director of agriculture and remained on the faculty until his death in 1943.
Carver observed that decades of growing cotton and tobacco depleted the soil of nutrients and was causing extensive erosion. He was a proponent of crop rotation and encouraged alternating soil-depleting cotton crops with crops that improved soil fertility, such as peanuts, peas and soybeans. Rotating crops helped improve agriculture in the South.
He also discovered sweet potatoes and pecans are beneficial to the soil.
He constantly kept conducting experiments with peanuts, sweet potatoes and pecans in trying to produce new products from these plants.
Over time, he developed many different products from the peanuts, sweet potatoes, and pecans. He found uses for discarded corn stalks, and from the clays of the Alabama soil he created many dyes and paints. He used the paints for his artwork.
Growing these products as alternatives to cotton helped improve the quality of life for rural residents.
Carver wrote brochures on better ways to grow crops, improved cultivation techniques and recipes for nutritious meals. In the early 1900s, he designed a mobile demonstration laboratory on wheels, known as The Jessup Wagon, in order to travel and educate farmers on site about bringing practical agricultural knowledge to farms. He was a pioneering extension agent.
George Washington carver died in 1943. He received many awards and honors in his lifetime. He is most remembered for the role he played in helping the American South transition from a farming system being a mostly monoculture crop of cotton to growing many different crops and having many profitable uses for their crops.
However, Carver did not patent or profit from most of the products he developed. He was quoted as saying, "God gave them to me." He would say about his ideas, "How can I sell them to someone else?"
A few years before he died, he donated his life's savings to the Carver Research Foundation at Tuskegee for agricultural research. He also has an agricultural experiment station named after him at Tuskegee University.
On his grave stone it is written: "He could have added fortune to fame, but caring for neither, he found happiness and honor in being helpful to the world." George Washington Carver was an accomplished agricultural scientist in many areas and a positive example to all of us.
Timothy Daly is an agricultural and natural resource agent with the Gwinnett County Extension Service. He can be reached at 678-377-4010 or timothy.daly@ gwinnettcounty.com.