Celebrating Black Innovators in Agriculture

February 14, 2024

The original innovators of Agriculture made the farming industry what it is today, and when paying homage to those innovators it is a vital social responsibility not to overlook the African-American pioneers of agriculture. In honor of Black History Month, we want to honor a few of the many African-American innovators and contributors who have advanced the agricultural industry for not only other people of color but people of all backgrounds in agriculture.

Henry Blair

Without the contributions of Henry Blair, the seeding process would not be what it is today. Blair was born in Green Ross, Maryland in 1807 and grew up to find success as an independent commercial farmer. After seeking more efficiency in labor, Blair patented the “seed-planter” in 1834 to make planting corn faster. With this invention, he became the second African-American in history to be issued a United States patent. Two years later in 1836, he used the framework for the seed planter to optimize the process of planting cotton, patenting the first cotton planter. Thanks to Blair’s inventions, commercial farmers today can streamline the process of seeding and produce a larger quantity of crops more efficiently.

George Washington Carver

Contrary to what you might have learned in elementary school, George Washington Carver did more for society than give us peanut-based products. Carver is arguably one of the most important agricultural scientists in American history and played a vital part in changing the landscape for farmers in the South. 

After realizing much of the soil in southern states lacked essential nutrients like nitrogen, Carver developed a new method for crop rotation which involved alternating crops with other crops such as peanuts and corn to provide nitrogen to the soil. This profoundly increased yields for farmers. 

To spread his teachings across the states, Carver created a mobile classroom coined the Jessup wagon, to educate more farmers on soil chemistry. His many contributions to agriculture benefited sharecroppers in America and paved the way for more sustainable agriculture practices.

Frederick McKinely Jones

Frederick McKinley Jones was one of America’s most prolific investors and entrepreneurs in the 20th century. With much interest in the refrigeration and cinema industries, he patented over 60 inventions between 1919 and 1945. His most notable invention was a refrigerator system designed from trucks transporting goods during extended transportation.

This system revolutionized farmers' ability to transport foods and became a vital component for transporting food, medicine, and blood between hospitals and battle camps during World War II. Thanks to Jones’ innovation, farmers can mass produce and sell crops to supply merchants worldwide.

John W. Boyd

Fourth-generation farmer, John W. Boyd is one of many black activists who fought to create space for black farmers in the agricultural industry. For multiple years in the late 80’s Boyd tried to get funding from the USDA only to be rejected multiple times, even seeing his application be thrown in the trash. After experiencing these discriminatory practices in the industry and discovering other black farmers had the same struggles, he was inspired to start the National Black Farmers Association. Since then, he has worked with multiple government officials and organizations to advocate for black farmers across the country. The National Black Farmers Association now supports thousands of members.

Booker T. Whatley

The model for Community Supported Agriculture plans can be attributed to the teachings of the next innovator on the list, Booker T. Whatley. 

Whatley was a horticulturist and professor at Tuskeegee University. As an advocate for regenerative agriculture and other environmentalist practices, Whatley counseled black farmers who struggled in the 1960s and 70s. In an effort to support black farmers and communities who often were denied loans and government assistance, Whatley advocated for pick-your-own farms and what he called clientele membership clubs. These programs involve customers paying upfront for a season of food as a way of guaranteeing business. 

He later published his ideas in a book titled How to Make $100,000 Farming 25 Acres, a book popular for both small farmers and large producers.

Karen Washington

Food justice activist, Karen Washington has done a tremendous amount of work to give New Yorkers access to fresh foods through urban gardening. Since the 1980’s she has been an advocate for equitable food systems in urban communities. She is most known for being one of the co-founders of Black Urban Growers, a volunteer organization that helps create and support networks of Black urban farmers and hosts the largest gathering for Black farmers in the United States. However, she became a gem to her community by being the co-founder of the Garden of Happiness, a community garden in the Bronx of New York City. All of her contributions led her to win two James Beard Awards, one of the highest honors in America for food. She continues to educate farmers today and fight injustices in the agricultural community.

Written by Kennadi Harris
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