There's TVA History in Your Garden

Today's flourishing "Victory Gardens" can trace their roots to the very beginnings of TVA, and its work to help the Tennessee Valley's farmers get back on their feet in the '30s.

JULY 8, 2020 — “Victory Gardens,” a term first coined for home-front efforts during WWII, are now yielding backyard bounties as families across America avoid crowded supermarkets and grocery stores to protect themselves from COVID-19. From  tomatoes and turnips to cucumbers and cantaloupes, a fertile TVA-related legacy is at the root of every fruit and vegetable plant now growing in these 21st century plots.

For those who want to know the history, it’s locked inside the three-number code inked on the side of every bag or box of fertilizer. The digits and dashes reveal the amount of key nutrients — nitrogen, phosphate and potash — that can transform water and barren dirt into something green and beautiful.


A New Deal for Farmers

Today’s commercial fertilizers, whether liquid or granular, can trace their origins to 1933, when Franklin D. Roosevelt launched the Tennessee Valley Authority as part of his New Deal vision. Created to lift one of the hardest-hit American regions from the depths of the Great Depression, TVA dammed the Tennessee River and by 1950, electrified five out every six of the 420,000 farms that dotted the agency’s seven-state service territory.

The dams brought immediate agricultural flood control to the area’s largest economy, and federally funded science worked swiftly to solve the riddle beneath the low-yield crops that plagued Southeastern farmers. The answer was in the phosphorus-depleted soil.

As part of the TVA Act of 1933, the agency acquired facilities that had been sitting idle in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, since the end of WWI: Wilson Dam, a steam plant, and two mothballed nitrate plants, which had manufactured explosive accelerant for Allied munitions during the closing months of the war.

In an effort to turn failing farms into profitable mom-and-pop entities, TVA bought a number of phosphorus mines throughout Muscle Shoals and Columbia, Tennessee, as well as a later stake in Florida ???. With abundant phosphorus deposits secured, TVA installed electric furnaces in each nitrate plant and began melting raw ore into a patented, superphosphate concentrate fertilizer.

Test-Demonstration Farm Program

TVA showcased the new product in 1935 through a community-education initiative that proved the benefits of fertilizer. By 1940, more than 20,000 demonstration sites had allowed TVA’s scientists and university partners to educate farmers across the 125-county service region.   

In an article published by The Progressive Farmer in Oct. 1951, Extension Agronomist J.C. Lowery detailed the story of Lum Cummings, a struggling Alabama farmer who said, “I went around rows with a little mule so long I just tried to find another way of making a living.”

According to the article, Cummings partnered with TVA and transformed his small farm into one of the storied sites of the Test-Demonstration Farm Program. He cleared 17 acres of swampland, turned the area into lush pasture and began a pure-bred beef operation.

“A man who started at the bottom now has one of the finest pastures in Alabama on upland not usually considered good pasture land,” Lowery wrote. “People from many states and foreign countries have traveled to visit this humble man and his family and to see the miracles they have performed in pastures… More than 5,000 people visited this farm last year…. The Cummings farm is now out of debt, from red ink to green grass.”

The Ammoniator Granulator

While the national popularity of the Test-Demonstration Farm Program and availability of cheap TVA fertilizers revolutionized American farms throughout the 1930’s and 40’s, it was the agency’s 1953 patent that became the cornerstone of modern agriculture.

Under the direction of a retired Harvard Professor, Dr. Leland Allbaugh, TVA developed the ammoniator granulator, which became the commercial standard for producing granular fertilizer. Before the 1953 breakthrough, fertilizers were powdery products that often caked and were hard to spread. The new-patented process created and sealed uniform beads with a dry coating that prevented the product from clogging inside mechanical spreaders.

The technology, however, had a further benefit.

It allowed for the manufacturing of high-analysis fertilizers that hold more than a 30-percent potency. Today, these coated granules are the baseline technology for common blends like Triple 15, which is high-analysis, 15-15-15 mixture that contains equal amounts of nitrogen, phosphate and potash — a combination totaling 45 percent.

The development of the ammoniator-granulator system increased production, dropped transportation costs and boosted profitability for agriculture producers across the nation. By 1970, more than 478 commercial fertilizer manufacturers in 39 states were using TVA technologies and processes — 196 patents of which had been made available through nonexclusive, royalty-free licenses.

In 1973, Washington Office Representative Marguerite Owen wrote, “Fertilizer technology has advanced greatly in the years since TVA took over the plant at Muscle Shoals, and its use has become selective and sophisticated. TVA has had a part in the change and it can be argued that the agency’s contribution to national experience is more accurately measured by its influence on the private sector of the economy than by its contribution to the art of government.”

Fertilizer, Conservation & Closure

From 1935 to 1990, TVA developed more than 300 patents for liquid, granular and power-based fertilizers. However, the agency’s primary agricultural focus shifted in 1979 to environmental conservation and the development of processes and practices to thwart pollution, groundwater contamination and chemical runoff.

In 1990, TVA suspended fertilizer operations entirely at the National Fertilizer Development Center in Muscle Shoals. The agency renamed the facility the National Fertilizer and Environmental Research Center to reflect its heightened emphasis on environmental problems facing the agriculture industry.

TVA closed the center in 2009 and later demolished the building as well as each of the site’s fertilizer production plants in 2014. The demolition effectively ended TVA’s fertilizer program and capped a 97-year history that first began with the 1917 construction of the original Muscle Shoals munition facilities.

Although it’s been more than a decade since TVA sealed 50-pound bags filled with their patented granules, the agency’s legacy continues to pay dinner-table dividends to the many whom enjoy the fruits of today’s Victory Gardens.