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.
In his early 20s he moved to Kansas having tried (unsuccessfully due to his race) to enrol in college. Instead he homesteaded a claim to a small plot of land near Beeler where he manually ploughed 17 acres planting rice, corn and vegetables as well as trees and flowers, supplementing his income by working as a ranch hand. This gave him not only valuable first-hand experience of agriculture but also the wherewithal to study; his first love was art and he studied at a local art college. But one of his teachers noticed his fascination with drawing plants and persuaded him to explore them further. He eventually enrolled at Iowa State Agricultural College (now Iowa State University) to study botany, becoming in the process the school’s first African American student and later its first black faculty member.
After several years teaching and researching there he was invited to join the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) and head up its agriculture department. Hence the train journey….
He soon realised that the challenge in such an institute is twofold. On the one hand there’s the need to research into crops and methods; here his innovations included crop rotation and crop selection, and particularly working on alternative cash crops to reduce the dependence on cotton. But on the other hand there’s an urgent need to take the message out – diffusion to scale depends on communication of innovations. Here he didn’t find instant success; there was an important learning curve to climb.
For example he wrote pamphlets urging farmers to buy a second horse so that they could run a more efficient two-horse plough which could till the soil to greater depth, and others which promoted the use of fertilisers. But gradually he came to realise that the poor sharecropping farmer sin his constituency had heard the information about fertiliser but couldn’t raise enough to buy any, let alone have cash to spare for a second horse. In any case the nature of the sharecropping system (in which landowners allowed farmers to work land in return for a share of the proceeds of crops which were sold meant that their existence was often precarious; why bother to improve soil when you might be kicked off it at any time?
He began to shape his message differently; at its heart was the principle that every operation had to be within the reach of a “poor tenant farmer with a one-horse equipment.”18 But he also stressed that farmers could work with the land and use its resources to help make themselves self-sufficient – for example by using their own compost instead of buying fertiliser.
And he innovated in the ways in which he took this message out. One of his early ideas was the Jesup wagon (named after the philanthropist who provided the funding for the programme) – a mobile classroom which took the lessons out to farmers. It enabled him and his team to reach over 2000 people per month during its first year of operation.
He began writing simple short information sheets – ‘Carver bulletins’ – which contained key messages. And he made sure the word was spread, using many of the principles which are today so familiar – like the role of key ‘influencers’ in the social system to whom others look for recommendations or whose behaviour they tend to follow.
He also understood the power of the demonstration effect; ‘seeing is believing’ as a powerful motivator for adoption. He worked a half-acre plot to show how the yield of sweet potatoes could grow in a few years from 40 bushels to 266 bushels. And on another plot which had been used for cotton (and as a result from which the nutrients had been exhausted) he showed how rotation planting of nitrogen-fixing legumes, like peas and beans, could enable increased yields of cotton a few years later.