Between the Rows: Giving life through the centuries

  • Peanuts and sweet potatoes were two of the important crops and projects that George Washington Carver promoted for their nutrition and for the benefits to the soil. For the Recorder/Pat Leuchtman

  • George Washington Carver. Contributed photo

For The Recorder
Tuesday, February 20, 2018

The United States has been built by people of every class, color and nationality — people who had a burning desire to learn, to spread new information, and to make people’s lives better, no matter their class, color or nationality. Sometimes their stories surprise us, and inspire us to find ways that we might improve our own communities, our country and even the world.

George Washington Carver (1864-1943) was just such a man. He was born to slaves, but by the time he was 36, he had earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees. He had studied plants and agricultural practices, and worked with farmers to share the knowledge he acquired from his research and practical experiences. Carver had more than book learning when Booker T. Washington, the first president of the Tuskegee Institute, asked him to head up the Agricultural Department in 1896. He taught there for 47 years.

Carver taught agricultural practices from crop rotation systems, soil improvement, farm self-sufficiency and also continued his research into various crops. He recommended sweet potatoes for their nutritional value. He had new ideas about teaching, and transformed a wagon into a mobile classroom. He visited farmers in that wagon on their land to give them additional training and information. This project was funded by the white philanthropist Morris Ketchem Jesup. This makes me wonder whether Carver’s fame had extended to the New York financial and philanthropy world or if he was a good fundraiser.

At the same time that Carver joined the Tuskegee staff the boll weevil was making its way from Mexico into the United States taking a terrible toll of the cotton crops. Carver had already been teaching farmers to diversify their crop plantings because cotton was depleting the soil. He suggested planting peanuts and soybeans because they would add nitrogen to the soil. It was his promotion of peanuts when the boll weevil was destroying the cotton industry that brought about the great increase of peanut farming.

His work with peanuts earned him fame and he became known as the ‘peanut man’ after a talk he gave to the Peanut Growers Association in 1920.

His fame went beyond agricultural organizations and beyond the educational world. President Theodore Roosevelt went to him for advice on agricultural issues and he advised Mahatma Gandhi on agricultural practice and nutrition. In 1916, he was made a made a member of the British Royal Society of Arts, a rare honor.

For the last two decades of his life, he enjoyed great fame and toured the country giving talks on interracial cooperation as well as agriculture and peanuts. Henry Ford built a replica of the cabin where Carver was born at the Ford Museum, and named a laboratory in Dearborn after him as well. The USDA named a portion of its Beltsville, Md., campus the George Washington Carver Center.

Carver has been memorialized in many ways. In 1943, during World War II, a Liberty Ship named the George Washington Carver was launched by Lena Horne, who was accompanied by Bill Bojangles Robinson, Dorothy Dandridge and welder Beatrice Turner — the first female African American worker at the Richmond Shipyards.

Oddly, that ship was almost immediately refitted as a hospital ship renamed the Dogwood and served by making trans-Atlantic trips and then moving to the Pacific, finishing at San Francisco, Calif. in the fall of 1946. By that time she was no longer needed as a hospital ship and regained her name as the George Washington Carver until 1964.

Although Carver died 75 years ago, I believe he would be happy to know that the peanuts he encouraged African American farmers to cultivate more than 100 years ago are now being used to save starving children around the world.

Inspired by Nutella, the delicious nut sandwich spread, a French pediatrician and nutritionist Andre Briend created a peanut paste mixed with skim milk powder, sugar, vegetable fat and vitamins in 1996.

Tinfoil packets of this nutritious paste, named Plumpy’nut, do not need refrigeration and do not spoil after the packets are opened. It can take a starving child from the brink of death to sure survival in just six weeks.

UNICEF is the largest buyer of Plumpy’nut, and in 2013 they fed 2 million children. Plumpy’nut can be ordered online at UNICEF’s website (https://shop.unicef.ca/plumpynutr-21-pack) starting with 21 packets for $15 or 105 packets for $58.

As the world wide refugee crisis has grown over recent years, Plumpy’nut has become even more important as families have found themselves living in tents in refugee centers.

George Washington Carver could not have foretold the global crisis of starvation, but I am sure he would join us in celebrating the continuing life-giving benefits of the humble peanut.

Pat Leuchtman has been writing and gardening since 1980. Readers can leave comments at her website: www.commonweeder.com.