We all know the buzzwords: organic, biodynamic, regenerative agriculture, but where did these terms and practices come from? What is the history behind these seemingly new and trendy methods? Well, while these terms may be relatively new, the practices behind them and the emphasis on land stewardship is not. Infact, land stewardship seems to be a long standing custom of many indiginous cultures, and in the US, these movements are based on the work of George Washington Carver at the Tuskegee institute. Carver, an American agricultural scientist and inventor, promoted alternative crops to cotton and methods to prevent soil depletion. He was one of the most prominent black scientists of the early 20th century.
A lack of written records makes it difficult to trace the origins of organic agriculture and the impact of early agriculture on the land. Archeological discoveries of rock paintings shed some light, indicating that as early as 3,500 BCE overgrazing and desertification were occurring in regions such as the Tibesti Mountains in North Africa. As people populated the earth, it is clear that land stewardship was central to many cultures. For example, in 2000 BCE Chinese cultures had composting and mulching practices and document tablets from around 1500 BCE indicate that the Sumerian culture had irrigation and windbreak techniques. (cite).
In America, one key person who may be credited with reviving organic practices is George Washington Carver of the Tuskegee institute. In 1896, when he took a train from Ames, Iowa to Tuskegee, Alamaba, he noticed that the monoculture of cotton that covered the landscape seemed to leave the land, the cotton, the cattle, and the people looking hungry. He identified several problems with the current practices in the South: monocropping, lack of vegetables, erosion, and the resulting poverty. In 1899 in an article in the Southern Workman magazine, Carver wrote "The virgin fertility of our southern soils and the vast amount of cheap and unskilled labor that has been put upon them, have been a curse rather than a blessing to agriculture; this exhaustive system of cultivation, the destruction of forests, the rapid and almost constant decomposition of organic matter, and the great number of noxious insects and fungi that appear every year, make our agricultural problem one requiring more brains than that of the North, East, or West.” (cite).
Just like modern day farmers who practice regenerative agriculture, Carver put emphasis on the quality of the soil. Carver saw that the practices of many Southern farmers were draining the soil of nutrients. He believed that poor soil was related to the quality of life of the farmers and communities, leaving people financially, spiritually, intellectually, and physically poor. Carver implemented a five step method to improve the quality of soil, and by proxy the quality of life, of farms across the South.
The first step was to halt erosion. Carver saw that most farmers were shallow plowing using a one horse plow, which left the topsoil pervious and the lower layers of soil hard. This meant that when it rained, the rain would permeate the topsoil layer and accumulate above the hard lower layers of soil until the water started to move laterally along the hard lower layers pulling the top soil away with it, resulting in erosion. Carver suggested deeper plowing to ensure that this separation of soils did not occur.
The second step was to utilize plants that were easy on the soil. This refers to the amount of nutrients a plant gets from the soil, a plant that requires lots of soil nutrients to grow would be considered hard on the soil, while a plant such as a sweet potato (which Carver used) that gets 80% of nutrients from the air, is easy on the soil. Carver found that sweet potatoes grew fine without fertilizers that were meant to help bolster soil health. Carver learned in college that soil was only fertile when it contained all nutrients needed to grow the desired crops, that when a plant grew it took away some of these nutrients, and that the fertility remains unchanged if a crop is left to decompose and goes back into the soil. Carver understood that in order to have a successful operation, one must have said fertile soil and that growing plants, such as sweet potatoes, could help revive soils and increase their nutrient content and overall fertility.
The third step was implementing crop rotation. Carver observed that letting the land rest for a period of time and/or rotating crops could help keep the soil fertile. He believed that combining nutrient dense manures, air, and crop rotation methods could keep soil healthy and productive. Similarly, step four was to utilize compost, or decayed organic matter, to keep soil full of nutrients. Based on the fact that a crop could give nutrients back to the soil if it decomposed back into the soil, Carver emphasized that farmers could enrich their soil by utilizing “green crops.” Green crops refers to crops grown in the fall that were then plowed back into the soil as a type of compost to feed the springtime crop. Carver warned against the use of chemical fertilizers, noting that they often left the soil depleted and less productive.
The fifth step was to introduce soil building crops such as Legumes. In 1899, Carver wrote in The Tuskegee Student that legumes such as beans and peas were used in ancient crop rotation because of their effects on the soil and crops. Leguminous crops help fix nitrogen from the air into the soil so that it may be utilized by other crops. This helps bolster the soil nutrient content, increasing the productivity of future growth. Certain legumes fix nitrogen better than others, and legumes such as peanuts, cowpeas, soybeans, have the capacity to fix up to 250 lbs of nitrogen per acre. The Chocho Plant, or Tawri, can fix between 143 to 196 pounds of nitrogen per acre (cite)!
Similarly, many Native American’s utilized (and still use) legumes in their crops. The Iroquois or Haundenosaunee people grew corn, beans, and squash, calling these the “Three Sisters.” These three plants worked together: The beans fixed nitrogen, the corn provided a stalk for the beans to climb, and the squash provided big leaves to shade the ground and keep in soil moisture. Additionally, a diet of corn beans and squash provided complete proteins and a balanced nutritional profile. The Haundenosaunee planted the Three Sisters together in the same area enabling them to reap the benefits of each other, a method that stands in stark contrast with modern day monocropping (Cite 1 and 2).
In fact, it appears that many ancient cultures practiced aspects of modern day “organic” agriculture. In addition to the previously mentioned use of compost in Chinese cultures and irrigation in Sumeritan cultures, the Inca (and pre-Inca) people of Peru developed methods that are worth delving deeper into, especially considering that the Inca were some of the earliest cultivators of chocho. Archeological research shows that over 1,500 years ago chocho became a significant source of protein in the region's food supply. Although the soil in the Andes might be considered “poor” and there is sometimes little rain and very cold temperatures, the Incan people developed techniques to grow an abundance of food. They utilized the chocho plant to fix nitrogen into the soil and boost soil health. Like the Native Americans, they avoided monocropping, and often grew corn, quinoa, and squash together (like the Three Sisters) so that the plants could provide nutrients for each other. The Incans also developed irrigation techniques and terraces that enabled them to grow food in places that otherwise would not yield crops. (cite) (cite).
These techniques are now being revived in the face of climate change, as rainfall has shown signs of decreasing and temperatures have become more volatile. Additionally, the glacial melt patterns, which are a key source of water for high altitude agriculture, are changing as the glaciers shrink. Research has found that the stone terraces helped the soil retain heat when temperatures dropped in the night, keeping plants alive and enabling a longer growing season. The terraces also help conserve water, keeping it in the soil and helping plants survive through droughts (cite). Although terraces are not typical in organic agriculture in the US, it is a method that many cultures around the world employ to improve soil health and fertility. This same value and emphasis on soil fertility is at the core of the modern organics movement. Just like Carver, who emphasized the importance of soil health, later pioneers of the movement like J.I Rodale believed that out of healthy soil grew healthy food, and that the foundation of nutrition is the soil. (cite)
Carver's work, and the practices of many indiginous cultures, essentially added up to the methods that we would now classify as “organic” and were the basis of future regenerative organic and biodynamic methods. Although the modern organic and regenerative organic movements are often credited to farmers like J.I Rodale, Albert Howard, or Bill Morrison, (cite) globally it is heavily rooted in indigenous practices, and in the U.S. in Carver's research at the Tuskegee Institute.