Eli Whitney (December 1765 – January 1825)
In 1794 US born inventor Whitney patented the cotton gin which revolutionized cotton production by dramatically increasing the speed of seed removal from the fiber. This was accomplished by running the cotton through a wooden drum fitted with a number of hooks that caught the fibers and pulled them through mesh fiber too fine for the seeds. Unfortunately, this invention provided southern farmers with justification for continuing and even expanding the practice of slavery – despite growing favor for its abolition. However, due to patent infringement issues, Whitney was unable to economically profit from his invention. Despite not providing the desired economic outcomes, his invention of the cotton gin garnered him a solid reputation that he was later able to use to secure a government contract for musket building. This resulted in the development of standardized interchangeable parts. Due to these advances, he is credited with being one of the pioneers of American manufacturing.
Cyrus McCormick (February 1809 – May 1884)
For twenty years Cyrus McCormick’s father Robert attempted to build a mechanical reaper to no avail. Cyrus adopted his father’s work and reconfigured his father’s concepts to create a properly working machine in 1931 that he patented shortly after in 1834. This invention revolutionized harvesting techniques that had not being updated in approximately 5,000 years. Previously crops were reaped by hand using a scythe. This labor was backbreaking and often resulted in crop loss because of the limited time for harvest before the product began to decay. However, at first, the product was not particularly popular. It was not until he developed a business plan that allowed for the use of credit and offered guarantees of harvest improvements that the machine gained acceptance and eventually popularity. His development of the traveling salesmen to spread the word about the mechanical reaper also revolutionized the world of marketing.
John Deere (February 1804 – May 1886)
Vermont native John Deer found that the economic conditions in his home state were unfavorable and opted to move to the Midwest where he quickly built a new forge which enabled him to reestablish himself. He listened to the complaints of farmers stating that their cast-iron plows were unable to effectively manage the local thick, tacky soil. Using this information, he joined forces with fellow Vermonter Major Leonard Andrus to develop the first no-stick plow blade from an old saw blade and a wrought iron moldboard. The new plow was made from steel, rather than cast iron, and polished smooth on both sides to ensure that the damp soil would not stick to the blade. His dedication to innovation transferred to future improvement to his products because he was aware of the fact that if he did not develop the advancements, someone else would.
Fritz Haber (December 1868 – January 1934)
Nitrogen, one of the most important elements used in agriculture was first solidified by Haber in 1908. This provided a means to utilize the mass amounts of gaseous Nitrogen in the air which was essential to meet the growing demand needed for the rapidly expanding food production system. He accomplished this feat by combining hydrogen and nitrogen at high temperatures in the presence of a catalyst to produce NH3 – more commonly known as ammonia. His success [which is often associated with Carl Bosch] earned him a Nobel Peace Prize. In modern times, 48% of the world’s agricultural production systems are dependent on nitrogen fertilizers.
George Washington Carver (January 1864 – January 1943)
After several decades of continuous cotton farming in the southern United States, much of the soil became depleted that resulted in diminished crop returns that were devastating to the already poor rural farmers. To combat this issue Carver suggested a diversification of crops include peanuts, sweet potatoes, and cow beans. Each of these plants enriched the soil and allowed for the creation of new economic opportunities for farmers. This led to him to develop more than 300 ways to incorporate peanuts into products like plastics, dyes, and cosmetics and 118 ways to use sweet potatoes in non-food products like rubber and postage stamp glue. His goal was to help eradicate some of the poverty that he had been forced to endure in life, but his quest was not easy due to segregation in the south. Still, he was quite successful in his endeavors and helped to improve the lives of thousands of people and lay the foundation for modern-day organic agriculture.
Rachel Carson (May 1907 – April 1964)
Carson began her studies as an English major but switched to biology shortly after. She completed her graduate work on a scholarship at John Hopkins University in 1929 which at the time was an amazing accomplishment for women. Her hard work and dedication earned her one of the only two positions with the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries where she worked to encourage the implementation of regulations and promote conservation efforts. She was then offered a full-time position as a junior aquatic biologist which allowed her to learn about the culture and economics of the Chesapeake Bay area and collaborate with the US Navy for a project to study underwater sounds, life, and terrain. In 1941 she published her first book Under Sea-Wind which captivated readers’ interest in the natural world. She continued working for the Bureau of Fisheries and authored a variety of series directed at the American public that often included information in laymen’s terms. She published her second book in 1951 which prompted her to leave her position with the government to devote her time to writing. She then published The Sea Around Us in 1952 and The Edge of Sea in 1956. However, it was her book Silent Spring that changed the course of American history by bringing attention to the harmful effects of pesticides – most notably DDT. Her goal was not to eliminate the use of pesticides but to encourage better regulation and safety testing. Regardless, the book caused a great deal of controversy and there were extensive efforts to discredit Carson by the pesticide industry. Despite their efforts, Carson was asked to testify before a congressional committee when a complete review of the United States’ pesticide policy was ordered.
(1953 – present)
Fraley is currently serving as the Executive Vice-President and Chief Technology Officer at Monsanto. He began working for the company as a research specialist in 1981 where he worked to develop solutions to many of the problems facing farmers, such as pest and disease control. His breakthrough came when he [and his team] isolated a bacterial gene marker that was engineered to express itself in plant cells. The first transgenic organism was developed using Agrobacterium which was used to transfer an immunity trait to tobacco and petunia plants. This development has expanded greatly and genetically modified seeds are now available throughout the world. In 1996 the first Round-Up ready soybean plants [that are resistant to the herbicide glyphosate] were planted in the United States. In his current position, Fraley is working to ensure that genetically modified products are readily available throughout the world with an emphasis on integration GMOs into smaller farm operations.
Joel Salatin (1957 – present)
Salatin is a third generation organic farmer who advocates for developing agricultural systems that mimic natural ecological cycles. On his farm in the Shenandoah Valley, he integrates permaculture and polyculture which enables him to provide food to more than 5,000 families, 50 restaurants, and 10 retail outlets. He is an author and public speaker who brings attention to subjective and burdensome government regulations that encourage large entities and discourages new and smaller producers from entering the market, as well as shares his personal knowledge and experiences with biodiversity and land remediation. Salatin has also attempted to bring his ideas to the government in an effort to reduce the environmental damage from agricultural waste runoff to the Chesapeake Bay area, although his solutions have not been embraced. His body of work includes a variety of books that detail the methods he uses on his farm in an effort to share the information necessary to restructure our food system starting from the farm up, although he also emphasizes the importance of personal responsibility in consumer choices. Due to the innovative nature of his farming practices he has also been featured in several films with the most notable being Food Inc. Salatin is also known for his relationship with Michael Pollen, another very influential advocating for sustainability.
Salatin, J. (2007). Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal. Polyface.