Guy and Naomi Woodroof: They made Georgia’s crops possible

Clint Thompson Georgia

By Carolyn Crist

This story is part of a series called Georgia Groundbreakers that celebrates innovated and visionary faculty, students, alumni and leaders throughout the history of the University of Georgia-and their profound, enduring impact on our state, nation and the world.

Guy Woodroof

As the story goes, the first time University of Georgia horticulturist Jasper “Guy” Woodroof saw his future wife Naomi Chapman in 1924, she was strolling among the rows of plants at the Georgia Experiment Station in Griffin, writing notes on leaves and walking around barefoot. That caught his attention.

The two began researching pecans together, specifically looking at the best ways to reduce diseases and blights that hindered the crop. They published several papers about pecan root growth and development. Within two years of working together, they married. During substantive careers and a marriage of more than 60 years, they developed methods still used today to grow, harvest and store crops. Also pioneers in their own right, they led major food science and plant pathology projects at UGA, faced Depression-era economic difficulties, and later traveled to underdeveloped countries around the world to teach others how to process and preserve food.

Expanding the bounds of plant pathology

Naomi Woodroof

Known as a “pioneer in agriculture,” Naomi Chapman landed the title of many “firsts.” Born on Feb. 5, 1900, she was one of the first two women in the U.S. to receive a degree in agriculture, the first female graduate of the University of Idaho College of Agriculture, and the first woman scientist at both the Georgia Experiment Station and the Coastal Plain Experiment Station. Chapman’s grit started early on her parents’ sheep and cattle ranch in Idaho —she rowed the Snake River twice each day to attend school in Asotin, Washington. Then she pursued an animal husbandry degree at the University of Idaho. When she didn’t find any job opportunities for women after graduation, she continued her dogged quest and earned a master’s in plant pathology in 1924. Still struggling to find an open position that would accept her, Chapman took out a bank loan to embark on the long five-day rain ride south from Spokane, Washington, to Griffin, where the Georgia Experiment Station took a leap by hiring her as an assistant biologist.

Her first assignment with Dr. B.B. Higgins focused on the root disease of cotton seedlings, and she found the problem —and a solution.“It speaks to a strength that came from her upbringing, energy and commitment to succeed. For women back then, the barriers were insurmountable, and she surmounted them all,” said Gerald Arkin, assistant dean of the UGA Griffin campus from 1987-2014. “Talk about a trailblazer coming all the way south to get a job in an area where women weren’t often hired.”

Then assigned to work on a pecan project, Naomi soon met Guy, and their partnership blossomed into several joint publications and courtship. After the Woodroofs married, Naomi raised their three children —Cade, Jane and Jasper —and turned down a doctoral fellowship from the Shaw Botanical Gardens in St. Louis, Missouri, to support her husband as he pursued his doctoral degree at Michigan State. When he was named the first president of Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in 1933, they moved to Tifton, Georgia where UGA’s Dr. Higgins rehired her, and she published definitive research around peanut leaf spot disease. During her revolutionary years at the Coastal Plain Experiment Station, Naomi founded UGA’s plant pathology department, developed new peanut varieties and disease control methods that led to a five-fold increase in peanut yields and played an important role in transitioning peanuts from hog feed to a crop for human consumption, which transformed the peanut industry across Georgia and throughout the nation.“She knew peanuts like the back of her hand,” said Frank McGill, a peanut specialist who worked at the Coastal Plain Experiment Station. “She walked barefoot in her plots, even when there were no chemicals then to control the sand spurs. In the summer,she enjoyed the freedom of walking down her rows, making notes, and talking about the research with the farmers. Nobody ever saw her get spurs in her feet.”

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