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George Washington Carver cared about sustainable farming before it was cool

George Washington Carver, in the lab.
George Washington Carver, in the lab.
Phil Edwards is a senior producer for the Vox video team.

The classic story about George Washington Carver is that he popularized the peanut, invented a bunch of weird uses for peanuts in the early 1900s, and maybe even invented peanut butter. The list of every peanutty innovation is long and eclectic, and it ranges from mock oysters to axle grease.

But the rest is less well-known: After all, why was Carver so obsessed with peanuts in the first place? The answer reveals the true reason for his passion and how a man born into slavery in the 1860s predicted some of the agricultural concerns we have today — almost 75 years after his death.

Carver's peanut obsession was a way to behead King Cotton

George Washington Carver in the lab in the 1910s

George Washington Carver in the lab in the 1910s.

CM Battey/Anthony Barboza/Getty Images

George Washington Carver was born into slavery at some point just before the end of the Civil War, so he grew up in a South that was deeply dependent on cotton. (The exact date of his birth is unknown.)

The problems with that economy ran deep, and Carver's many peanut inventions weren't because of a peanut obsession, but a much larger mission to improve Southern agriculture.

First, there was a social problem: Cotton usually required very large farms with cheap laborers, who had traditionally been slaves. After slavery, those labor-intensive practices persisted through sharecropping, which divided large cotton crops among sharecroppers, who then farmed the land and returned a fee. Sharecropping often involved unfavorable terms for sharecroppers and put many farmers into debt; at best, it further perpetuated a reliance on cotton at a time when prices were unfortunately falling.

Second, there was an agricultural problem. Cotton made the South's economy highly susceptible to plagues like the boll weevil but, more importantly, sole dependence on cotton depleted the soil. The simplified explanation: Cotton requires a lot of nitrogen in the soil. In Carver's day, it was hard and expensive for poor farmers to dump on a lot of nitrogen-filled fertilizer on this soil.

Carver was deeply aware that cotton, once king, had become a tyrant. He wrote that the extremely fertile soil and labor system of the South (i.e., slavery and then sharecropping) had led the region to practice destructive and careless farming. The South had created an "agricultural problem, one requiring more brains than of the North, East or West." So as a result, Carver looked for other plants that could refresh the soil and replenish nitrogen.

Lots of plants can help fix that nitrogen problem — nitrogen-fixing plants give nitrogen back to the soil, providing a strong basis for further growth. These include not just the peanut, but plants like the cowpea and sweet potato, as well. Carver invented all those peanut applications because he wanted to build a market for the nitrogen-rich plants that could fix Southern soil.

Does Carver deserve his legacy as "the Peanut Man"? Or should it be something bigger?

A shot of the lab at Tuskegee, circa 1902.

A shot of the lab at Tuskegee, circa 1902.

Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images

Carver is thought of as making the peanut popular — it's easy to believe that he invented peanut butter, even though it was probably a Canadian named Marcellus Gilmore Edson.

That's led some, like NPR's Gene Demby, to question Carter's peanut-based legacy, suggesting we should forget the peanuts entirely. Biographers have joined the fray, as well — as Linda O. McMurry wrote in her 1981 biography of Carver:

Despite later claims that he almost singlehandedly transformed the peanut from an inconsequential crop to a multimillion dollar enterprise, a sizable, well-organized, and increasingly powerful peanut business existed even before Carver became its symbol.

As Demby and Mcmurry note, many of Carver's peanut inventions were never widely used, which made them more proofs of concept than industry-driving innovations. The reason we associate him with peanuts is, in part, because of his early media appearances and his testimony before Congress, which permanently attached the "Peanut Man" nickname.

However, we'll never know what would have happened to the peanut had Carver not been around. Some people argue that peanuts would have succeeded even without his championship, the same way computers would probably still exist even without Dave Hewlett and Bill Packard.

But judging Carver's legacy on peanuts alone shortchanges what he was really trying to accomplish.

Carver had an underappreciated emphasis on small, sustainable agriculture

George Washington Carver circa 1920

George Washington Carver circa 1920.

MPI/Getty Images

That's, in essence, the argument made by historian Peter Burchard in his 2005 study of George Washington Carver, written for the national monument to Carver in Missouri.

As Burchard argues, it was always crop rotation — alternating cotton with other, nitrogen-fixing crops — that mattered more than one specific legume.

Carver wanted small farmers to improve their livelihoods. Burchard cites one letter in which Carver wrote, "My work is that of keeping every operation down so that the farmer and the man farthest down can get a hold of it."

Rather than be dependent on large cotton farms and sharecropping, Carver wanted farmers to buy their own patch of land and create sustainable businesses. All this makes it reasonable to call Carver, as Burchard does, an "organic agricultural pioneer," who believed in small, sustainable farms over giant operations. This favored both the land — he was an active conservationist — and small farmers.

Like an organic farmer today, in 1908, Carver voiced his skepticism of the overuse of commercial fertilizer, which provided short-term gains but in the long term could release dangerous chemicals into the soil (which early fertilizers did), erode the soil's quality by drying it out, and create runoff. As Carver wrote just two months before his death, he believed that "plants are just as sensitive to narcotics and drugs as a human being." He suggested compost, nitrogen-filled plants, and manure — both animal and human — as a better alternative (understandably, this has gotten less press than his push for peanuts).

Of course, Carver's legacy should include even more things than his promotion of smart agriculture. He was an early civil rights figure thanks to his scientific prominence, a committed educator at the Tuskegee Institute, a devoutly religious pillar of his community, and even a painter. He did it all thanks to deeply humanitarian and religious influences — in 1917, he told the Montgomery Advertiser, "I want to feel that my life has been of some service to my fellow man."

His legacy is further complicated by his other, less prescient experiments as a true scientific generalist. In the '30s, he devoted much of his time to experimenting with peanut oil rubs for polio patients (later, it was discovered that the massages, not the oil, were probably the most therapeutic element). And he dabbled in other homeopathic remedies, too.

But when considered in relation to contemporary concerns, George Washington Carver may be most resonant as a voice for the sustainable farmer, who helped reform Southern agriculture and set a path for farming's future. While it's difficult to quantify his effects on agriculture at large or the peanut specifically, his intellectual legacy is clear: Even though his advice wasn't always heeded when he was alive, it still provokes discussion in an entirely different century.

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