Peanut-powered innovation

Tuskegee, Alabama.  Not the world’s most attractive farming country.  And certainly not in the view of a young man looking out of the window on his train journey south in 1896.

 “My train left the golden wheat fields and the tall green corn of Iowa for the acres of cotton, nothing but cotton, … … The scraggly cotton grew close up to the cabin doors; a few lonesome collards, the only sign of vegetables; stunted cattle, bony 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.”

The young man in question was George Washington Carver, and he was about to change all that.

Farming innovation is tricky country.  We’ve been working the lands for millennia, gradually learning how to do it better, improving yields, reducing waste, choosing crop varieties, doing what we do better.  But there’s a paradox built into agriculture as a system – it’s got a lot about it to make it anti-innovation.  Specifically it’s about risk – if you mess around with something and the crops fail you have a lot of hungry people to answer to.  So progress tends to be slow, incremental, walking the tightrope between innovation and reliability.

But alongside the age-old traditions of farming lies the world of scientific research, digging away at the underlying architecture of why things happen and how we might exert some control over that.  And fields like botany and crop science have a lot to teach farmers – if they’d only listen.

There’s no shortage of potentially useful knowledge – the challenge is how to take proven science out of the laboratory and into the day-to-day harsh world of practising farmers.  How to inform them, how to persuade them to adopt new equipment, methods, crop strains, fertilisers and other innovations?

It’s a worthy challenge – the impact of improved farming is felt by everyone, food stability means other parts of society can develop.  Not for nothing do many historians link this shift to key emergence of civilised society.

Back in 1896 one of the people picking up the gauntlet was our young man on his train journey.  George Carver was headed for the Tuskegee Institute which he was to lead for the next 47 years, leaving behind him a legacy of innovation not only in the lives of famers but also in the working methods of scientific institutions.  We talk a lot about university/industry links these days; he was one of the pioneers.  And his work had long-lasting impact; when he heard of his death in 1943 President Franklin Roosevelt commented that ‘the world of science has lost one of its most eminent figures’ and statues of the man are dotted all around the USA.

His is an amazing story.  Born in Missouri into slavery in the 1860s (slaves didn’t have birth records so he never knew himself the exact date)  he was stolen in a raid when he was only a week old.  His owner, Moses Carver, organised a search and eventually the boy and his mother and sister were found and their release negotiated  – the legend is that he was the boy who was traded for a horse.  Slavery was abolished soon after that with the ending of the Civil War and Carver adopted the boy; his wife. Susan taught him to read and write.