George Washington Carver, a great scientist, changed the economy of the South with his agricultural knowledge. This lesson will investigate how the lowly peanut kept the cotton farmers from losing everything.
Do you know what peanuts, pecans, and peas all have in common? They are all plants that end up feeding the soil in which they have been planted. That was new news back at the turn of the century! In this lesson the students will learn how an African American scientist named George Washington Carver took that knowledge and changed the way farmers farmed.
- Answer the three basic economic questions.
- Determine how standard of living is affected by technological changes.
- Identify George Washington Carver as an inventor and an innovator.
Discuss with your students the following ideas/activities. In thinking about the economy of any country, there are three basic economic questions that need to be asked: What goods and services does the country need? How will those goods and services get produced? For whom will the goods and services be produced?
What if you lived in a country where the people ate mostly potatoes? You probably would know that each family grew potatoes. You might also knew that the families ate the potatoes that they grew. In other words,you would have answered the three basic economic questions. But now ask yourself this: What if you knew that a bad blight was going to kill all the potatoes in your country for the next three years? (A blight is a condition that kills plants.) Would you still hope to get the same answers to the questions? No! You would want the people of your country to grow something other than potatoes so that they would not starve to death.
That country was Ireland. In the middle of the nineteenth century, Ireland suffered from a potato blight, and many Irish people died. Most people do not know that the same thing almost happened in US history. If it had not been for one man, George Washington Carver, our country might have had to live through a similar disaster.
In thinking about the economy of any country, there are three basic economic questions that need to be asked: What goods and services does the country need? How will those goods and services get produced? For whom will the goods and services be produced? Countries make these decisions in different ways. In the United States these questions get answered by consumers and producers.
Back in the early 1900’s, farmers in the South, for the most part, grew cotton and tobacco. Those crops were grown on individual farms by sharecroppers and farmers. Before the Civil War most of these same farms had been portions of big plantations. But after the Civil War government officials broke the big plantations up into many small farms and let sharecroppers (many of them former slaves) farm these smaller plots for the owners. Then the owners of the farms would sell the cotton and tobacco giving the sharecroppers a small bit of the profits. Cotton and tobacco were grown for the entire United States and sold to other countries.
Along came a great scientist out of Tuskege Institute and he knew how terrible things were going to happen to the South that was going to change the economics of the entire area! He knew that there was a small bug called the boll weevil and it had started eating and ruining the cotton crops. He also knew that cotton and tobacco plants were depleting the soil of its nutrients and that very soon the land was going to produce less and less.
Something needed to be done! George Washington Carver knew that the farmers in the South had to grow something else or the farmers were going to lose everything. He discovered that if they grew peanuts, peas, pecans, or sweet potatoes then the soil would get better. Cotton and tobacco zapped the nutrients OUT of the soil, but peanuts, peas, pecans, and sweet potatoes put nutrients back INTO the soil.
But there was a big problem. The country did not want peanuts! Think of how that would change your response the the first question you answered (if it would change it at all).
George Washington Carver knew what he had to do. He had to talk the entire country into wanting peanuts! He took peanuts and INVENTED new products made with peanuts. Go to the Carver Peanut Products page to find a list of those products. After George Washington Carver invented new uses for the peanut, what are the answers to the three basic economic questions of the South? Remember that these three basic economic questions that need to be asked are what goods and services does the country need, how will those goods and services get produced, and for whom will the goods and services be produced?
- What will the South decide to produce? [The South will decide to produce peanuts.]
- Who will produce it? [The peanuts will be grown by Southern farmers.]
- For whom will it be produced? [Peanuts will be produced for the entire United States and other countries.]
George Washington Carver was an INNOVATOR also. An INNOVATION is when a person figures out a new way to do something better with an item that has already been invented. Carver’s INNOVATION was to find out that if a farmer rotated his crops (tobacco one year, peanuts the next) then more tobacco was produced because the soil was enriched by the peanuts.
Students can read/watch more about George Washington Carver at:
- The Legacy of Dr. George Washington Carver
- 10 Fun Facts about George Washington Carver – video
- George Washington Carver for Kids – Video
Interactive Activity: This interactive drop and drag matching activity ask students to match statements with the appropriate product (cotton or peanut) to assess if they understood the readings.
Students should know that countries face choices and makes decisions about three basic economic questions: What goods and services will be produced? How will the goods and services be produced? For whom will the goods and services be produced? The economy of a whole area can be affected if the producers make a wrong decision!
To learn about more African American inventions and innovators go to the following web sites.
“Standard of living” refers to how people are doing as far as money is concerned. Ask them to write a paragraph about what they think happened to the farmer’s standard of living when they started rotating their crops. They should also answer why they thought that is what happened? [Crop rotation let the farmers produce more goods so the farmer’s standard of living increased.]