Corn and tomatoes: An education for boys and girls… and more

A tomato canning club from Vigo County, Indiana. Photo courtesy Gary Moore.

Corn club boy. Photo courtesy Gary Moore.

George Cooper | Staff Writer

Recognize the youngsters and accept that they know stuff. Such is the voice of progressive educator Gary Moore, professor at North Carolina State University and president of the Association for Career and Technical Education.

At 3:30 p.m. today in the Hall of Christ, he will give a lecture titled “Suffer the Little Children: How Boys’ Corn Clubs and Girls’ Tomato Clubs Changed Rural America.”

And it really is all about kids, and learning and doing. The early 20th century was in many ways a dismal time for rural America. People were isolated. The work was difficult. There were few recreational activities — even as “leisure time” was something of a buzz phrase for urban, industrialized workers.

The corn and tomato clubs provided something for kids to do — an edifying activity, but one with which they, in turn, edified adults. The science of agriculture was advancing quickly. But some of the old farmers were reluctant to accept scientific findings, fearing they were an imposition by the government. They, as much as anything, trusted the tried and true methods that for them had become routine.

According to the Aggie Horticulture website, as part of the Texas A&M system, “‘Corn Clubs’ were established for boys in 1907 all across the country. The Corn Clubs provided rural boys with “‘improved’ seed corn and lessons in soil preparation and fertilization.” There was competition, and the boys with the best corn won awards, which eventually interested their fathers and neighbors.

“The success of this program slowly opened doors for improved agricultural techniques like hybridized seed, fertilizer and crop rotation to take root,” the website says.

For the girls, it happened with tomatoes. The process of education was multifaceted, engaging and beneficial to more than the students. In growing tomatoes, the girls did everything but plow the field, a task which required an ox or mule and heavy plow work.

But the girls laid out the gardens, measured the plot, determined spacing for tomato plants, the rate at which to fertilize them and more. Eventually, the young girls were canning tomatoes, applying the solder to the top of the cans and helping their mothers with the process.

The girls also wrote regularly in diaries about interesting observations, Moore said. They were reflective and sensitive writings, he said. At the same time, they were deceptively simple: One girl wrote that she had learned not to plant her tomatoes so close to the chicken coop, as the chickens had found much to enjoy in the tomato seedlings.

The boys’ and girls’ clubs contributed to their communities beyond their benefits to kids and agriculture. The girls’ clubs in the South were initially segregated. In the 1930s, people began to realize the white and black groups could be integrated to the benefit of both.

“The tomato clubs helped to promote racial harmony,” Moore said.

A progressive educator begins by helping learners build on what they already know and keeping them hands-on. Moore practices what he preaches, and as part of his presentation, each audience member will have a clicker with which to register reactions and responses. Moore’s computer will tabulate the responses. While all interactions are anonymous, participants can gauge their knowledge against that of their peers. And they can, plain and simple, answer some questions.