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The Bend Magazine

The Cowpea Comeback

08/07/2019 04:05PM ● By Justin Butts
By: Justin Butts  Photo by: Rachel Benavides

The cowpea is possibly the perfect vegetable. Cowpeas grow well in weak, thin soil. They thrive in hot, dry weather. Cowpeas are easy to cultivate and they actually fertilize the soil as they grow. Cowpeas are also highly nutritious.bThey contain up to 25% protein, plus carbohydrates and essential minerals. So, why is this near-perfect vegetable not a key American crop? The answer: cowpeas have a troubled past.

Cowpeas (black-eyed peas are a good example) are also called field peas, crowder, or Southern peas. It is this connection to the South that hurt their reputation.

Cowpeas on the Middle Passage

Cowpeas were brought to America on African slave ships. African slaves were forced to teach their captors how to cultivate them. Cowpeas became a staple of plantations as fertilizer, as animal fodder, and as food for slaves. Cowpeas were the linchpin of Southern slave agriculture. This irony must have been bitter in the mouths of those who were forced to grow them. Following the Civil War, this association with the evils of slavery caused northern food writers to demonize the cowpea. Cowpeas remained locked within Dixie.

George Washington Carver Promoted Cowpeas

George Washington Carver, the former slave who became a leading scientist of the 20th century, fought unsuccessfully to elevate the cowpea to national prominence (he was more successful with peanuts). The cowpea was nearly lost to backyard gardeners outside the Deep South. But now, all cultures can embrace this wonderful vegetable and honor the spirit of those who were forced to toil the earth to grow them: oppressed, hopeful, unsung, unconquerable. Today, we know they were giants.

How to Plant Cowpeas in the Coastal Bend

Cowpeas can be planted in the heat of August. The “pinkeye” variety of black-eyed peas is ideal
for our area.

First, prepare a wide bed with well-tilled soil. Use the wooden end of a garden rake to draw parallel lines across the width of the bed four inches apart and one inch deep. Sprinkle the black-eyed peas down each line and gently rake them into the soil. Thin the peas to a final spacing of four inches.

Use as Fertilizer or as Food Crop

Cowpeas will fertilize the soil at a rate of 200 pounds of nitrogen per acre through nitrogen fixation. That is a massive amount of fertilizer generated simply by growing a plant! To achieve maximum fixation, till the plants into the soil when they are at full flower but before pods form (about 30 days after planting). Immediately plant your favorite vegetables in this rich soil.

Or, harvest the pods when they are fully formed and a deep purple, about 45 days after planting. These peas can be eaten fresh, even raw in the garden. You can also leave the pods on the plant until they fully dry out (about 60 days), then harvest and store the peas dry.