George Washington Carver and the First How-to Manuals for America’s Farmers

Missouri native George Washington Carver is often well remembered as one of America’s greatest agriculture scientists. But he was also a leader in public outreach, writing bulletins that shared how-to information with farmers who hadn’t previously received such guidance.

At the Missouri Botanical Garden, Carver’s legacy as an agriculture scientist is commemorated in the Carver Garden. Two old documents preserved in the Garden’s library remind us that Carver was also a pioneer in public outreach and in what we might these days call “appropriate technology.”

The documents are two bulletins of the Tuskegee Experiment Station, simply printed without covers and preserved by the library in cardboard folders. One, from 1909, dealt with ornamental plants of Macon County, Alabama. The second, from 1942, was titled “Nature’s garden for victory and peace.”

These represent a small fraction of Carver’s writing, most of which was published in similar bulletins between 1898 and 1943. The bulletins offered essential information that previously hadn’t been easily accessible to farmers.

In Carver’s time, most small farmers in the South lived in poverty, struggling to grow cotton, a resource-hungry cash crop, on failing soils. Malnutrition was common. Conditions for African-American farmers, especially sharecroppers who did not own the land they worked, were particularly hard. Carver devoted his life to improving the economic security and health of the region’s farmers by providing information on sustainable farming and nutrition.  

Long before state Cooperative Extension Services produced informational publications for farmers of their states, Carver was a one-man CES. His 44 Bulletins covered topics like successful cotton growing and livestock raising, food preservation, home and farm economics, and the cultivation and uses of alternative crops like peanuts, cowpeas, sweet potatoes, and tomatoes.

A full list is available online from Tuskegee University.  

Carver was exceptional in his ability to be innovative and open-minded, rather than dogmatic. He was an early advocate of large-scale composting to rebuild soil, as well as crop rotation, but was not a doctrinaire believer in what we now call organic agriculture. Rather, he recommended whatever technologies he thought his primary audience could afford and would benefit from, which usually meant inexpensive and small-scale technologies. 

Although Carver did not, as commonly believed, invent peanut butter, he published many unusual or novel recipes for plants suggested as subsistence crops. It is worth noting that none of his three patents were for food processing techniques — all of those were freely presented to the public. 

Mainstream America has long held a cultural bias against wild plant foods. Although this bias was less extreme in Carver’s day, his acknowledgements of the uses of wild plants were truly exceptional for a scientist whose work focused on agriculture and horticulture. 

During World War II, Carver’s “Nature’s garden” bulletin did not just advise rural people to cultivate vegetables, as typical Victory Garden literature did, but pointed out nutritious plants that might be obtained freely and with less effort on their own land. A much older bulletin (No. 34, 1917) was titled “Forty-three ways to save the wild plum crop.” 

Another aspect that stands out from the Tuskegee Bulletins is Carver’s skill as a science communicator. This was a brilliant and highly educated man writing not only for fellow scholars, but for farmers who sometimes had only a grade-school education. Too many scientific and medical authorities fail to communicate well with the public. They may, by habit, use an overly specialized vocabulary and style, or in an effort to avoid that, they may unintentionally dumb things down so far that they are uninformative. Carver’s writing at its best was clear, concise, simple, yet packed with information — a style that more people today could stand to emulate. 

Wendy Applequist
Associate Scientist, William L. Brown Center

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