The World Food Prize Foundation

The Borlaug Blog

Learning from George Washington Carver

By Kyle Poorman and Natalie Bidner

On February 1, Iowa celebrated the inaugural George Washington Carver day in honor of the world renowned agricultural innovator and educator whose focus never wavered from empowering those around him.

It was an honor to celebrate Carver’s legacy on February 1 alongside our partners at Iowa State University and in tandem with Iowans around the state. The World Food Prize Foundation is inspired and awed by the contributions of George Washington Carver. This year, his story and dedication to innovation and empowerment will guide our programming as we aim to inspire action to sustainably increase the quality, quantity and availability of healthy food for all.

While Carver may be best known for his creation of hundreds of peanut products, his true legacy stems not from a single crop but from his embrace of innovative crop systems and commitment to empowering himself and others through education and resource sharing.

Curiosity from a young age 

From a very young age, Carver demonstrated a wonder and reverence for the natural world. Born in Missouri into slavery, Carver was orphaned and subsequently raised by his parents’ slaveowners. He spent much of his youth observing the ecological systems around him before leaving at age 11 to pursue an education, as none of the schools around his home accepted Black students. His subsequent educational trek took him from Missouri to Kansas and then to Iowa.

Carver’s impact in Iowa

Carver came to Iowa to pursue a degree in art and piano at Simpson College, but his teachers encouraged him to transfer to what is now Iowa State University to study agricultural sciences, becoming the first Black student. Despite the overwhelming barriers of entrenched racism and discrimination, he was able to graduate and eventually receive a faculty position, also firsts. 

Whether intended or not, Carver’s personal craving for learning broke barriers of discrimination and increased educational access for Black individuals in Iowa, particularly those interested in agriculture.

While at Iowa State, Carver also became well-connected to other agricultural leaders and made a strong impact on many. Carver’s influence on Henry A. Wallace, for example, was profound. Carver inspired a young Wallace to focus on the observation of nature and botany. 

Wallace would accompany Carver on observational treks around Ames, Iowa, gaining skills which would serve him well in his agricultural career based on developing different varieties of hybrid seeds. Wallace would later become Secretary of Agriculture and serve as Vice President of the United States under FDR. 

Supporting Black sharecroppers

Carver’s rise to national and international prominence arrived at a time when sharecropping cemented itself as the dominant agricultural system in the United States. Formally established at the end of the American Civil War, sharecropping was an incredibly resource- and labor-intensive production system that relied heavily on the production of cotton and other cash crops. It limited sharecroppers - many of whom were recently freed slaves - from gaining an economic foothold and ravaged soil health.

Recognizing the social and environmental consequences of sharecropping, Carver sought to establish alternative agricultural systems that provided farmers with high-yielding, nutrient-dense crops, sustainable farming practices, and greater income potential through multi-cropping systems and product processing. 

Carver’s service to Black farmers and sharecroppers in Alabama and across the United States demonstrated his dedication to innovation in the face of oppression.

Envisioning new systems 

Carver’s recommendations to sharecroppers were antithetical to the typical practices of the early 20th century, and many lessons from his career and life are just as applicable today. 

He understood that sustained success in agriculture must be based on the long-run well-being of both human and natural systems, which was not occurring at the time and is still central to the conversation today.

His approach to rotating a diversity of crops with a heavy reliance on nitrogen-fixing plants reminds us of today’s discussions on the importance of soil health.

He embraced diversified innovations that enhanced natural and nutritious food systems, bringing about positive change for stakeholders across the food supply chain.

In the early 20th century, we had not yet defined the concepts of conservation, regenerative, or circular agriculture,  but these types of systems were exactly what Carver embraced and what we need to explore further today.

Empowering future generations

Perhaps based on his own intellectual curiosity, Carver was continually drawn to sharing his work and educating others. For each new innovation and approach he mastered, he did not only theorize it, but demonstrated it to farmers and students alike at Iowa State University and, later, the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University), where he spent 47 years teaching before his passing.

With all he accomplished, his work in empowering and mentoring students and farmers was his ultimate achievement. Again ahead of his time, he understood that the challenges he faced would outlive him and that empowering future generations to tackle current and future challenges would extend his legacy far beyond his years.

Seeing Carver’s impact in Iowa and around the United States, it is clear why Carver has become one of only three Iowans to be recognized by the state with a day of recognition, joining U.S. President Herbert Hoover and World Food Prize Foundation founder and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Dr. Norman Borlaug.

02/27/2023 11:22 AM
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