Celebrating Black History: Innovations of Black Farmers in Modern Agriculture
Updated: Feb 6
Since the end of slavery in America in 1865 Black farmers have generously fed and supported their communities. Over the past 158 years Black farmers have consistently contributed key innovations that have helped to advance modern agriculture. Today, we want to celebrate some major innovations and contributions that Black farmers have made to advance modern agriculture.
Regenerative Farming Practices
While working as a professor at Tuskegee Institute, George Washington Carver developed techniques to improve soils depleted by repeat plantings of cotton (a nitrogen depleting crop). Carver, an agricultural scientist, inventor, and educator developed crop rotation methods that encouraged farmers to alternate cotton plantings with the plantings of corn or legumes (like peanuts - a great source for naturally adding nitrogen back into the the soil). This early regenerative practice not only helped to improve soils depleted by cotton, but also increased farm productivity and created more diversity of crops produced by southern farmers.
This technique of alternating crop rotations to regenerate soil health is still a core practice of regenerative farming techniques today and provides a sustainable and environmental solution to synthetic fertilizers.
In addition to the development of crop rotation techniques to support regenerative soils, Professor George Washington Carver advocated for the use of compost as a way to reintroduce organic matter and nutrients into the soil. Through his experiments, Dr Carver demonstrated that adding composting material to soils he was able to dramatically increase the productivity of farms compared with previous methods. Today, the use of compost is a critical practice for organic farming and is an excellent alternative to the use of synthetic fertilizers.
Automated Seed Planters
On October 14, 1834, Henry Blair, born a free man in 1807 was the 2nd African American to be issued a United States patent. Even without a formal education, Blair was a successful farmer in Montgomery County, Maryland and he is credited for 2 patented inventions; a corn planter and a cotton planter.
Henry's inventions were described as a very simple, but ingenious machines. They were horse driven and the machine would automatically open the furrow, drop seeds at proper intervals, cover the seed and level the soil. This allowed farmers to plant as rapidly as a horse can draw a plough across the field. He believed his machine could save the labor of eight men. His innovative planters were some of the earliest automated precision planting machines ever.
Refrigerated Transportation System
Frederick McKinley Jones, he become a talented mechanic through his mechanical work on a farm in Minnesota. After serving in the U.S. Army during World War I, Jones returned to work on the farm. While working there Jones educated himself in electronics, radio transmitters and synced motion picture projectors (syncing the sound and pictures).
Jones went on to design and patent a portable air cooling system that allowed trucks to transport perishable foods. The system was installed in trucks, boats, planes, and trains and helped to improve the worldwide trade. Jones and partner Joseph A. Numero founded the U.S. Thermo Control Company (later known as Thermo King), which saw massive growth during World War II. His company and inventions helped to preserve blood, medicine and food - saving countless lives.
Sustainable Farming Practices
In 1987, Dr Booker T. Whatley, an author, horticulturist and Tuskegee University professor, published his book "How To Make $100,000 Farming 25 Acres". In the book Whatley explores key tenants of farming that help to minimize unnecessary costs, reduce waste and maximize income for small scale farmers. While building on the regenerative approaches developed and taught by George Washington Carver, Whatley has helped to guide future generations of small scale farmers to success and sustainability.
Whatley passionately advocated for “smaller and smarter” farms, building on Carver's ideas to “Take care of the waste on the farm and turn it into useful channels.” These pioneers in small scale, highly productive regenerative farms continue to enable new generations of farmers to start in and succeed in agriculture.
Dr. Whatley's 10 Commandments.
Thy small farm shalt:
Provide year-round, daily cash flow.
Be a pick-your-own operation.
Have a guaranteed market with a Clientele Membership Club.
Provide year-round, full-time employment.
Be located on a hard-surfaced road within a radius of 40 miles of a population center of at least 50,000, with well-drained soil and an excellent source of water.
Produce only what they clients demand—and nothing else!
Shun middle-men and middle-women like the plague, for they are a curse upon thee.
Consist of compatible, complementary crop components that earn a minimum of $3,000 per acre annually.
Be 'weatherproof', at least as far as possible with both drip and sprinkler irrigation.
Be covered by a minimum of $250,000 worth ($1 million is better) of liability insurance.
Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs) & U-PICK
Today Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs) have become more common-place and provide for a way for local communities to connect with and support their community farmers, but this wasn't always the way. Booker T. Whatley advocated for the concept in the 1960s, calling it a Clientele Membership Club. Members of the club would prepay for a membership fee, which supported the farmer's costs and in return they would receive fresh produce which they would pick themselves (U-PICK). The model helped to ensure that the farm had a consistent and reliable cash flow and the U-PICK model reduced the time and labor costs needed to harvest.
U-PICK Models have been popular throughout history, but didn't really pick up until the 1950s, helped by farming innovators and advocates like Booker T. Whatley. He believed that visits to the local farm could be a way to enrich customer's lives and provide an enjoyable excursion from city life. He also believed that farmers' markets were too much work for small farmers. Thanks in part to Whatley today customers have more opportunities to connect with and support their local farmer through CSAs and U-PICKs.
Dr. Whatley's work continues to inspire new generations of farmers with sustainable techniques like the U-PICK and CSA farming models.
There are many other black innovators and farmers that are not mentioned here and we celebrate them as well.
Home Gardens and Addressing Food Insecurity
Having enough food is a basic need all of us have but having access to enough food is something that has been a struggle for some black individuals through the time that they have been in the U.S. In the Antebellum South on plantations, slaves built what were called, slave gardens. These were gardens that they could grow food and medicine for their families and communities. After working very long days in the fields they would come home and tend their own gardens. Thomas Jefferson wrote about the resilience of the gardens of his own slaves on Monticello.
These innovations are just a small narrative of the long history of Black Farmers being innovative and resilient in their communities.
Supporting Black Farmers
If you're interested in supported Black farmers, we'd encourage you to check out these great resources and organizations to find support or support a local black farmer in your community:
Family Agriculture Resource Management Services (F.A.R.M.S.)
While Farmbrite is not a nonprofit, we support organizations that are committed to reducing hunger, improving access to fresh food, improve sustainable & regenerative agricultural practices while strengthening their communities through sustainable agriculture.
If you're part of an agricultural organization working to eliminate food deserts or reduce hunger, an urban community farm serving under privileged or minority communities or a community food hub that provide free or discounted food to their communities we'd love to support your mission, learn more about our free community program.
Written by Farmbrite's staff writers and farmers. Thanks for reading!