Jonathan Richie

Apr 16, 2021

5 min read

George Washington Carver and the Agricultural Experience in the Early 1900s

George Washington Carver

George Washington Carver, born into slavery during the last days of the Civil War, became one of most famous public figures in the early 1900s through his incredible scientific inventions.[i] Largely remembered for his work concerning uses for the peanut, it is often forgotten that one of Carver’s primary purposes as a professor was to educate those in the community in new ways of farming in order to elevate them out of the poverty they were plagued with.[ii] Throughout his time teaching at Tuskegee Institute, the novel methods and inputs discovered by his entrepreneurial inventiveness allowed not only the Tuskegee farms to thrive but also equipped many share croppers to rise above their depressed economic conditions. Carver himself explained that, “My purpose alone must be God’s purpose — to increase the welfare and happiness of His people.”[iii] Ultimately, Carver’s business experience in the first quarter of the 1900s reveals how entrepreneurial resourcefulness can elevate and assist the people in one’s community.

Carver’s best and most consistent entrepreneurial work was that of raising the farmers of the South out of debt and to a level of self-sufficient prosperity. A great example of Carver’s entrepreneurial resourcefulness was by teaching the managers of the land ways of increasing the production of their capital by altering the inputs. Farming is so much more than merely digging a hole in the ground and dropping a seed in it — indeed, it involves many considerations in the fields of biology, chemistry, and horticulture. For many of Alabama’s poor one of the largest difficulties was the land itself. Having been repeatedly farmed for decades with cash crops which drained the land of nutrients the productivity had steadily declined, making it harder and harder to turn a profit. In his 1905 pamphlet How to Build Up Worn Out Soils, Carver explained that:

For eight years the Tuskegee station has made the subject of soil improvement a special study, emphasizing the subject of crop rotation, deep plowing, terracing, fertilizing, etc., keeping in mind the poor tenant farmer with a one-horse equipment; so therefore, every operation performed has been within his reach.[iv]

Taking the plot of land owned by the Tuskegee Institute, Carver developed methods of agriculture which allowed even the poorest of farmers with the most nutrient deprived lands to not only reinvigorate the soil but turn a considerable profit while doing so.[v]

Close up of a Carver’s Face Mask

Building off of his work of his work in rejuvenating the land, Carver suggested in his handbook, How to Make Cotton Growing Pay, that through the careful management of recourses and the creative cultivation of the soil even land universally considered to be poor could be induced to produce an outstanding cotton crop. After laying out a step-by-step guide as to tilling, fertilization, crop rotation, and other means of preparation Carver was prepared to suggest a conclusion that practically anyone at the time would have dared to make — “the fact that our light, sandy, wornout soils can be reclaimed and made to yield paying crops of cotton.”[vi] Carver’s work developing new ways to grow cotton successfully brought him not only regional and national acclaim, but even international attention, with Booker T. Washington noting that Carver, “is constantly receiving inquires in regard o his work from all parts of the world, and his experiments in breeding new varieties of cotton have aroused the greatest interest among those cotton planters.”[vii]

Carver, however, did not stop with just cotton or even peanuts, but instead pressed his scientific agricultural inventiveness into various other crops such as plums, corn, sweet potatoes, other vegetables, and fruits.[viii] He went beyond even these subjects too, and sought to employ every possible remedy he could imagine in order to tangibly elevate the financial and material position of the Southern farmers. Indeed, using his position as a respected professor and an internationally acclaimed scientific inventor, Carver taught others to be themselves more than merely managers of the land but rather entrepreneurs of the land. He wrote that farmers, just like anybody else, could succeed by, “always being on the alert to take advantage of the many little opportunities to make a few dimes as they present themselves to you.”[ix] It was vital to be prepared for new profit opportunities because, Carver further explained, “We are confronted with new economic conditions; the problems of last year are not the problems of this year.”[x]

However, he encouraged people by illustrating, “many ways of becoming thrifty and self-supporting.”[xi] The end goal of Carver’s work on advancing new practices of scientific agricultural entrepreneurship was to empower the poor African American farmers of the South to become major factors in the economy. Carver wrote that, “By the advance of civilization, the markets have become more fastidious; and he who puts such a product upon the market as it demands, controls that market, regardless of color. It is simply a survival of the fittest.”[xii] Carver’s unique brand of scientific entrepreneurism significantly impacted the business experience of many farmers in the South during the early part of the 1900s.

Cast of George Washington Carver’s Hand

[i] See, Michael Burgan, George Washington Carver: Scientist, Inventor, and Christian (Minneapolis: Compass Point Books, 2007).

[ii] Mark Hersey, “Hints and Suggestions to Farmers: George Washington Carver and Rural Conservation in the South,” Environmental History Vol. 11, №2 (April 2006): 1.

[iii] William J. Federer, George Washington Carver: His Life & Faith in His Own Words (St. Louis, MO: Amerisearch Inc., 2002), p. 68.

[iv] George Washington Carver, How to Build Up Worn Out Soils (Tuskegee: Tuskegee Institute Steam Print, 1905), 4.

[v] George Washington Carver, How to Build Up Worn Out Soils (Tuskegee: Tuskegee Institute Steam Print, 1905), 15.

[vi] George Washington Carver, How to Make Cotton Growing Pay (Tuskegee: Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, 1908), 14.

[vii] Booker T. Washington, My Larger Education: Being Chapters from My Experience (Garden City: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1911), 231.

[viii] George Washington Carver, How to Grow the Peanut: And 105 Ways of Preparing it for Human Consumption (Tuskegee: Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, 1916); George Washington Carver, 43 Ways to Save the Wild Plum Crop (Tuskegee: Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, 1917); George Washington Carver, Increasing the Yield of Corn (Tuskegee: Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, 1909); George Washington Carver, Possibilities of the Sweet Potato in Macon County, Alabama (Tuskegee: Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, 1910); George Washington Carver, When, What, and How to Can and Preserve Fruits and Vegetables in the Home (Tuskegee: Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, 1915).

[ix] George Washington Carver, Help for the Hard Times: Important to Farmers, Take Note (Tuskegee: Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, 1910), 3.

[x] George Washington Carver, Twelve Ways to Meet the New Economic Conditions Here in the South (Tuskegee: Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, 1917), 3.

[xi] George Washington Carver, How to Make and Save Money on the Farm (Tuskegee: Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, 1927), 16.

[xii] George Washington Carver, “The Need of Scientific Agriculture in the South,” Farmers’ Leaflet №7 (April 1902): 4–5.