George Washington Carver: Strengthening Society with Conservation Through Agriculture
April 2020 marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Organizations around the world have commemorated the occasion by participating in the global Earth Optimism movement — an initiative spearheaded by the Smithsonian to “turn the conservation conversation from doom and gloom to optimism and opportunity”.
Throughout 2020, the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) and our partners are joining the movement by sharing conservation success stories from and made possible by the BHL collection. Follow our blog for conservation stories — past and present — and visit our website for more information and to explore our Earth Optimism book collection.
“‘When I touch that flower,’ he said softly, ‘I am not merely touching that flower. I am touching infinity. That little flower existed long before there were human beings on this earth. It will continue to exist for thousands, yes, millions of years to come.”‘
— George Washington Carver, as quoted in The man who talks with the flowers; the intimate life story of Dr. George Washington Carver (Clark, 1939)
Widely known as the “Peanut Man”, George Washington Carver is a famous historical figure in the world of agriculture. His work with peanuts is the first thing many learn about him in grade school, and indeed he popularized an underused versatile legume. He also worked extensively with sweet potatoes, soybeans, tomatoes, and much more. However, he sought to do more than highlight particular foodstuffs. He was interested in creating social change through agriculture, and thoughtfully caring for the soil that would bring about this change. Carver sought to encourage sustainable farming practices, move nature education outside the classroom, and improve the livelihoods and economic security of poor Black farmers in the South. Somewhere in the enticing history of peanut farming we lose the knowledge of his passion for conservation; Carver was instrumental in highlighting the need for agriculture to be intertwined with ecology.
“Unkindness to anything means an injustice done to that thing. If I am unkind to you I do you an injustice, or wrong you in some way. On the other hand, if I try to assist you in every way that I can to make a better citizen and in every way to do my very best for you, I am kind to you.
The above principles apply with equal force to the soil. The farmer whose soil produces less every year, is unkind to it in some way; that is, he is not doing by it what he should; he is robbing it of some substance it must have, and he becomes, therefore, a soil robber rather than a progressive farmer.” (Carver, 1914)
Carver began his studies as the first African American student at the Iowa Agriculture College (now Iowa State University) in 1891. Louis Pammel, Carver’s advisor, was instrumental in shaping Carver’s views on ecology. Pammel felt that ecology was incredibly important to the field of agriculture, particularly the need to achieve agricultural equilibrium between crops and natural species (Hersey, 2011). Carver followed his mentor’s teachings closely and went on to complete his master’s degree in Iowa. In 1896, Booker T. Washington offered him the role of head of the agriculture department at the Tuskegee Institute. The following year, the state of Alabama established an Agricultural Experiment Station at Tuskegee, the first of its kind at a Black institution.
“When my train left the golden wheat fields and the tall green corn of Iowa for the acres of cotton, nothing but cotton, my heart sank a little…The scraggly cotton grew close up to the cabin doors; a few lonesome collards, the only sign of vegetables; stunted cattle, boney mules; fields and hill sides cracked and scarred with gullies and deep ruts…Not much evidence of scientific farming anywhere. Everything looked hungry: the land, the cotton, the cattle, and the people.” (Carver, 1941)
Though Carver focused his instruction on the relationships between plants, he also looked specifically at how people interact with nature. While at Iowa, he was a member of the Welch Eclectic Society, which focused on strengthening skills in literature, science, and public speaking; in this group he often wrote poetry and performed music (Gart, 2014). He was an advocate of the nature study movement, which tied personal, spiritual, artistic, and observational experience with the natural world. Correlating perspectives of nature with personal responsibility solidifies the importance of conservation. Nature study was often employed at the time to provide primary school children opportunities to work with gardens. Carver also took his adult students out into the natural world to experience what they were learning aesthetically. While at Tuskegee, he served on the board of Nature-Study Review, and also penned Progressive Nature Studies. In it, Carver highlights why he felt so strongly about this kind of study:
“The thoughtful educator realizes that a very large part of the child’s education must be gotten outside of the four walls designated as class room. He also understands that the most effective and lasting education is the one that makes the pupil handle, discuss and familiarize himself with the real things about him, of which the majority are surprisingly ignorant… If properly taught the practical Nature study method cannot fail to both entertain and instruct. It is the only true method that leads up to a clear understanding of the fundamental principles which surround every branch of business in which we may engage. It also stimulates thought, investigation, and encourages originality.” (Carver, 1897)
Carver was invested in scientific education and sharing the joy of ecology with people outside of academia as well. He spent a great deal of his time providing short courses for those unable to attend the Institute; both farmers and educators benefited from these opportunities. He spoke widely at state fairs and other public venues, emphasizing that understanding the whole of the natural world, of which crops are a component, is essential to being least harmful to that world.
In some notes on his coursework, Carver defined agriculture as “…the cultivation or the manipulation of the soil in such a way as to bring about the greatest possible yield of products useful to man with the least injury to the soil and at the least expense” (Hersey, 2011). This message was evident in his work, especially as it tied to economic independence for farmers. His very first experimental station bulletin highlighted the use of the acorn as an inexpensive and nutritious food source for livestock; not only were acorns widely available to poor farmers, but also the usage provided the added economic justification for maintaining forests (Carver, 1898). Carver focused on crops that were edible, marketable, and contributed to healthy soil, such as: cowpeas, sweet potatoes, and, of course, peanuts. To this end, he published bulletins highlighting recipes for using readily available ingredients on a family farm.
Carver spent a great deal of time studying alternatives for the purposes of improving soil quality and frugality. He was a champion for crop rotation and natural fertilization. “His was in many ways a voice alone, the voice of one calling not in the wilderness—like his more famous contemporaries—but in denuded and depleted fields white with bolls of cotton” (Hersey, p 220). Carver was concerned with reducing erosion of the topsoil, and he highlighted the importance of forest preservation in providing rich nutrients to that topsoil. He persuaded Tuskegee Institute to collect leaves from the trees within its land holdings for use in his work. He advocated more extensive plowing to aerate and mix the soil. He tested and promoted the use of natural fertilizers, arguing for their scientific merits as well as their accessibility to farmers with fewer means to purchase commercial products. He focused on crops that would bring the least damage to the soil while also providing yields to farmers over longer periods of time (Burchard & George Washington Carver National Monument (Mo.), 2005).
Carver did not publish prolifically as is expected in scientific fields, nor did he keep extensive laboratory records. There is some controversy over his scientific achievements as these metrics often require. Additionally, his push for sustainable farming and providing economic independence for Black farmers was unrealized. His ideas flew in the face of the politics and practices of the South where sharecropping was rampant (Kaufman 2019). The poorest farmers were in thrall to their landlords and were only given latitude to diversify crops when cotton prices were low. When it was allowed, most new crops needed attention in the spring and summer, when cotton was demanding. While the early 1900s saw a dramatic increase in Black homeowners in the South, soon after the United States faced the Great Depression and World War I, decreasing those numbers yet again (Hersey, 2011). Though Carver and the Tuskegee Institute attempted to push for better practices by working with white landlords, this understandably caused concern for many of the Black farmers who had been subject to many disreputable landlords over time. Additionally, his colleagues often considered his suggestions and concern over the natural world to be “feminine” and thus outside of the scientific pursuits of the day.
Though many may not initially think of Carver while considering conservation efforts over time, his goal was to marry preservation of the natural world with more accessible and successful farming practices. His ideas were almost prescient considering the more widespread cries that came much later to prevent deforestation for both environmental and agricultural benefits, the focus on organic farming, and the concern of the effect of pollutants from agriculture on the natural world. His influence on conservation may sometimes get lost in the excitement over peanuts, but the BHL contains windows into the complexity of his research and his historical impact on agriculture and conservation.
Check out sources included in this post in the curated BHL Earth Optimism collection.
To see all BHL content by Dr. Carver, see his author profile in BHL.
Burchard, P. D., & George Washington Carver National Monument (Mo.). (2005). George Washington Carver, for his time and ours : special history study : natural history related to George Washington Carver National Monument, Diamond, Missouri. Omaha, Nebraska: National Park Service. Retrieved from: https://www.nps.gov/gwca/learn/management/upload/GWC-For-His-Time-Ours-Spec-History-Study.pdf
Carver, G. W. (1897). Progressive nature studies. Tuskegee, Alabama: Tuskegee Institute Print.
Carver, G. W. (1898). Feeding acorns. Tuskegee, Alabama: Normal School Steam Press.
Carver, G. W. (1910). Nature study and gardening for rural schools. Tuskegee Institute, Alabama: Experiment Station, Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute,.
Carver, G. W. (1914). Being Kind to the Soil. The Negro Farmer, p. 1.
Carver, G. W. (1916). How to grow the peanut, and 105 ways of preparing it for human consumption. Tuskegee, Alabama: Tuskegee Institute.
Carver, G. W. (1942). Nature’s garden for victory and peace (Revised and reprinted. ed. Vol. no.43). [Tuskegee]: Tuskegee Institute.
Carver, G. W., “Script for Dr. George W. Carver Broadcast: U. S. Office of Education,” 19 October 1941,
TIA, 46,989 & 62, 151.
Clark, G. (1939). The man who talks with the flowers; the intimate life story of Dr. George Washington Carver. Saint Paul, Minn.: Macalester Park Publishing Co.
Gart, J. (2014). He shall direct thy paths: The early life of George W. Carver, historic resource study George Washington Carver National Monument, Diamond, Missouri. Omaha, Nebraska: National Park Service. Retrieved from:
Hersey, M. D. (2011). My work is that of conservation : an environmental biography of George Washington Carver. Athens: University of Georgia Press.
Kaufman, R. (2019). In Search of George Washington Carver’s True Legacy. Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/search-george-washington-carvers-true-legacy-180971538/.