Crop Development

Field work, Tuskegee

Field Work, Tuskegee
(between ca. 1910 and ca. 1915). Bain News Service, Publisher. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Late in [Carver’s] life, he recalled the shock he experienced on his first trip to Alabama, in October, 1896: ‘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.’ Indeed, historian Mark Hersey has pointed out that even a half-century before Carver arrived at Tuskegee, ‘the country’s single greatest agricultural problem was erosion, and cotton cultivation was the single biggest contributor to it.’

One of the first things Carver did during his early tenure at Tuskegee was to undertake a series of experiments through which he tried to understand what plants would grow well in the Alabama soil and which ones would help to build up the soil and provide good forage. Understanding that black Macon County farmers did not have money for expensive seeds and fertilizers, he attempted to focus on techniques that would cost farmers little more than their own hard labor and ingenuity.

Kremer, G.R. (2011). George Washington Carver: A Biography. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood, pp. 79-80.

Carver published the results of his studies on the value of growing and developing various (non-cotton) crops such as sweet potatoes, cowpeas, small grains, corn, alfalfa, and plums in several Experiment Station Bulletins. (He also acknowledged the primacy of cotton for poor black Alabama farmers in two publications.) Carver backed up his observation of Alabama upon his arrival, "Everything looked hungry: the land, the cotton, the cattle, and the people" by exorting his audience to expand its products beyond cotton to crops that would better fill their stomachs and wallets. This effort to develop and expand the range of crops for these farmers is the central subject for the Bulletins in this section.

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