BLOG / The History of Black Excellence in Sustainability: Dr. Booker T. Whatley

The History of Black Excellence in Sustainability: Dr. Booker T. Whatley

Author: Apeel Team

In honor of Black History Month, we’re sharing four stories of Black Americans who have gone beyond excellence, achieving the extraordinary in agriculture, science, social justice, and sustainability. Each week, members of our Black Lives Matter Taskforce here at Apeel will share an individual who has inspired them with their work. 

This week, we are spotlighting Dr. Booker T. Whatley and his lifelong work on regenerative agriculture, who was chosen by one of our Talent Acquisition Specialists and a member of our Black Lives Matter Task Force, Bakari Boone.

Dr. Booker T. Whatley was a prominent African American farmer born in 1915 in Calhoun County, Alabama. Growing up in the South and seeing the decline of black farmers due to racial inequality and the rise of industrialized agriculture, he decided to pursue a career in Agriculture. He attended Alabama A&M University and also served in the Korean War, where he operated a hydroponic farm to provide safe, nutritious food for the troops. Because of this work, he kept pursuing his passion for farming and enrolled in Rutgers University, earning a doctorate in horticulture in 1957. He also happened to earn a law degree from Alabama A&M University in 1989.

After starting his professional career at Tuskegee University, Dr. Whatley became a champion of the strategy of ‘smaller and smarter’. Rather than try to compete for the same market as industrial farmers – and spending too much money to survive in the process – he encouraged small farmers to focus on higher-value crops like berries and grapes, marketing them to a loyal group of customers who could then come harvest the crops for themselves and even pay for the privilege of doing so as an experience. This concept, which came to be known as “pick-your-own” (PYO) is something farmers and growers still use around the world today.

His brilliant marketing strategies – which came to be known as part of a regenerative agriculture plan – helps guide enterprising farmers to be smarter with smaller units of land, to pay more attention to their resources (sun, air, rain, plants, animals, people, etc.) These concepts can be found in his book, The Whatley Plan, which guides small farmers and growers to this day. 

“I wanted to highlight Dr. Whatley because his work is so relevant now, maybe more so than ever. Issues like global warming and the Coronavirus pandemic highlight the downfalls of a centralized food system and reasons why we should honor more small-scale farmers and growers. The work we do here at Apeel to support small farmers goes hand in hand with his sustainable farming practices. While we are so inspired by nature’s technology, pioneers like Dr. Whatley have so many other lessons to draw from when it comes to building a more secure food system.” – Bakari Boone, Talent Acquisition Specialist

Want to check out more historic examples of Black Excellence in Science and Sustainability? (Good, because there are plenty!) Stay tuned to our blog to hear more stories throughout Black History Month.

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