LSU AgCenter Horticulturist
For nearly 50 years, Black History Month has been celebrated in the U.S. The story took root when Carter G. Woodson, a Harvard-trained historian, and minister Jesse Moorland founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1926. The official monthlong celebration did not begin, however, until 1976, and is widely recognized as a time to highlight the achievements of Black Americans.
During this month, we should recognize and celebrate those Black Americans who had a lasting impact on both horticulture and agriculture. One of the most highly recognized figures is, of course, George Washington Carver, who in 1896 was the director of the Agriculture Department at Tuskegee University in Alabama. Known most famously for hundreds of inventions of products made from horticultural crops such as peanuts, soybeans and sweet potatoes, he is one of the most important figures in regenerative farming and environmental sustainability.
One of his most important historical scientific impacts on agriculture was his work in the improvement of soils through the development of a crop rotation using nitrogen-fixing peanuts and by promoting the practice of composting. By alternating the planting of crops such as cotton followed by legumes such as peanuts the soil could be regenerated and its productive capacity increased while also diversifying the types of crops farmers sold. His promotion of the use of compost is still an important practice in home gardening and organic farming today.
Carver also worked to provide agricultural education to Black Americans under the Second Morrill Act of 1890, and he worked to promote self-sufficiency practices so farmers did not have to rely on white landowners or the cotton market for income.
Henry Blair was another important figure from the early 1800s. He was the second Black man to be awarded a U.S. patent. He provided the world with two important inventions: corn and cotton seeders. He first designed the wheelbarrow-type corn planter, and two years later, he patented an invention for a mechanical horse-drawn cotton planter. Both inventions increased yield and efficiency of labor and time that saved farmers money.
Another Black American who made his mark on agriculture and the movement of perishable foods was Frederick McKinley Jones, who died in 1961. An electrical engineer, he was credited with many inventions — but most notable to agriculture was the mobile refrigeration system he invented. He patented his refrigeration system in 1940 and became the co-owner of the company Thermo King, which installed the system into airplanes, cargo ships, trains and trucks that transported perishable foods safely over long distances. Because of his invention, fresh seasonal produce could be enjoyed throughout the entire year. Other concepts such as frozen foods, supermarkets and container shipping were all derived from the work of Frederick Jones.
Finally, Booker T. Whatley, who followed in the footsteps of Carver, was a horticulturist and agriculture professor at Tuskegee University in Alabama. His lasting legacy has been his passion for sustainable farming practices, community supported agriculture and farming cooperatives. He was the first to introduce the concept of community supported agriculture groups, commonly known as CSAs, in the 1960s as a solution for struggling Black farmers who were often denied loans and grants typically granted to whites. These CSAs were introduced as “clientele membership clubs” where farmers could sell prepaid boxes of crops at the beginning of the season to ensure a guaranteed income. One might say that Whatley paved the way for today’s farm-to-table and local eating movements in addition to his influence on CSAs and U-Pick farms.
Whatley examined efficient farming practices that allowed the small farmer to make the most of their farm while making a decent living and published these practices in his 1987 book, “How To Make $100,000 Farming 25 Acres.” The book lists 10 commandments of farming that help farmers minimize unnecessary costs, limit waste and maximize income and farm space with smart crop selection.
These Black Americans, followed by countless modern-day farmers, bring food to the table, ensure environmental sustainability, economic stability and health and wellbeing through their contributions to agriculture and to the people of Louisiana and the rest of our world. We celebrate these heroes and continue to encourage and support the Black community of growers and farmers.
Farmers markets help support communities and Black farmers. LSU AgCenter file photo
Produce at a farmers market. LSU AgCenter file photo