BHM | Hidden Histories: “7 Contributions of Black Farmers to Agriculture” – Poughkeepsie Farm Project

Many of the most common farming practices used today in New England and America were actually contributed by African Americans. Inventors, horticulturalists, farmers, scientists, mechanists, and activists.

Last year, the Poughkeepsie Farm Project (farmproject.org) highlighted seven of these significant contributions. This acknowledgment is critical to remember as we continue to further our agricultural and related practices. Foods and food systems are complex in history, politics, identity, and meaning. The names of these African-Americans are important to remember and honor. Their identity should be recognized and valued. Read more below:

7 Contributions of Black Farmers to Agriculture

As technology and research have advanced in the past 200 years, the way we approach farming has changed significantly.  Countless inventions, ideas, and practices from important figures in history have increased productivity and efficiency on the farm.  In celebration of Black History month, we are highlighting seven major agricultural contributions from African American farmers, horticulturists, and inventors. Their contributions have revolutionized the way our food system functions today.

1. Early Seed Planters
Henry Blair- Born a free man in 1807, Henry Blair was the second African American to be issued a United States patent.  Despite having no formal education, he was a successful farmer who patented two inventions: a corn planter and a cotton planter.  The corn planter had a compartment which held and dropped the seeds to the ground and rakes which followed to cover them with soil.  The cotton planter was horse-drawn and had two shovel-like attachments that divided the soil. Behind it, he put a cylinder-shaped wheel that dropped the seeds into the newly turned soil. Both of his inventions greatly increased efficiency on the farm by limiting labor and time.

Henry Blair: Patents by Negroes, by Henry Baker, vol. I, 1834-1887
George Washington Carver, who lived 1864-1943.

2. Biological Regeneration of the Soil Through the Nitrogen Cycle and Crop Rotation
George Washington Carver, an agricultural scientist, inventor, and educator at Tuskegee University sought to revitalize southern soil that had been stripped by cotton, a nitrogen depleting crop.  He developed a crop rotation method that alternated the cotton with legumes like peanuts that fix nitrogen and other edible crops such as corn.  This method increased the soil’s productive capacity and also gave southern farmers another crop to produce and sell besides cotton, thus diversifying the market.

3. Compost
In addition to crop rotation, Dr. Carver promoted the practice of using compost to reintroduce nutrients and add organic matter to the soil.  He showed that using compost for soil revitalization increased its productivity by a hundredfold compared with previous common methods. Using compost to build soil is a critical practice in organic farming and gardening today.

4. Sustainable Farming Practices
Booker T. Whatley, an Alabama horticulturist, author, and Tuskegee University professor, examined efficient farming practices which allowed the small farmer to make the most of his/her farm while making a decent living.  His book, How To Make $100,000 Farming 25 Acres (1987), explores his ten commandments of farming that assist the farmer in minimizing unnecessary costs, limiting wastes, and maximizing income and farm space with smart crop selection.  He also continued the use of soil regeneration techniques supported by George Washington Carver, a faculty member of the previous generation. His work continues to be a guide for small farmers towards success and sustainability.

5. Community Supported Agriculture
One of Booker T. Whatley’s  ten commandments was the importance of what he called a Clientele Membership Club.  Members of this club paid an initial membership fee which contributed to the success of the farm. In return, they received fresh produce that they would pick themselves.  This ensured a constant cash flow into the farm, while saving on time and labor.  Dr. Whatley identified this as an essential aspect of a successful farm in the 1960’s and 70’s.  Today, this idea is commonly referred to as community supported agriculture (CSA) and is becoming more popular as the demand for local food continues to grow.

6. Transportation Refrigeration System
Frederick McKinley Jones is the inventor of one of the most important inventions to modern agriculture: the refrigerated truck.  From an early age, he  took a strong interest in mechanics and electricity.  He patented his refrigeration system in 1940 and became the co-owner of the company Thermo King through which he sold his invention.  The system allowed perishable foods to be shipped to further distances and even overseas.  It was installed in trucks, boats, planes, and boxcars and improved the worldwide food trade. 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.

Frederick McKinley Jones

7. Farming Cooperatives
Since the abolition of slavery in 1865, numerous farming cooperatives were established to increase opportunities, land ownership, agricultural education, and living conditions for black farmers despite the setbacks from systemic discrimination.  Historical figures such as Booker T. Washington worked to offer agricultural education to Blacks under the Second Morrill Act of 1890.  He also promoted self-sufficiency practices so black farmers did not have to rely on white landowners or the cotton market for income.  Others such as Robert Lloyd Smith who began the  Black farming cooperative called the Farmers Improvement Society of Texas (FIST) worked to benefit black farmers in all aspects of life.  During the Civil Rights movement, many others including activist Fannie Lou Hamer, religious figures and political leaders continued to seek better livelihoods for Blacks in agriculture. The work of these individuals has helped improve conditions for Black farmers in the U.S .

African-American farm and home demonstration agents pose for a group photograph under the Booker T. Washington monument at Tuskegee Institute, July 15, 1925: Wikipedia

Think of where you and your communities would be today without these seven ideas and inventions. Especially community supported farm shares and farming cooperatives, which help to tie together farming and non-farming members of areas. Consider the importance of the transportable refrigeration system – global, national, regional, and even local food distribution infrastructures wouldn’t be able to exist. Grocery stores wouldn’t be able to carry produce year-round. The idea of sustainable agriculture from Booker T. Whatley is now a major area of study at many colleges and universities and is an ever-growing field (excuse the pun), especially given global climate change. Seed planters are a common item in farm and garden stores, and often industry-standard for the task. Crop rotations greatly increase the healthy production of crops from the land each season. Compost is one of the most-cited examples of easy, sustainable living in modern times. Black farming cooperatives are often cited as the origin of all co-ops as we know them today.

If you read this article fairly quickly, I implore you to read each section again and consider, at least briefly, the actual implications of these contributions.

 

Best,

C. Ross
Common Share Food Co-op
Blog Editor

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