A complex curriculum whose roots lie in the training of farmers and future farmers to obtain maximum productivity from their land and maximum profits from their products at market. In colonial America, agricultural education was limited to an informal family apprenticeship system in which boys routinely helped their fathers maintain the family farm and gradually learned all the skills of planting, harvesting and managing crops, caring for livestock, control of pests, storing grains and produce, butchering animals, repairing tools, building and maintaining fences and maintaining outbuildings, barns and houses.
By the end of the 18th century, however, the farmlands of the Northeast and Middle Atlantic States were exhausted because farmers, as hardworking as they were, lacked knowledge of proper fertilization and crop rotation techniques. In New England, Yale College president Timothy Dwight wrote that "our fields are covered with a rank growth of weeds," because of "insufficient manuring, the want of good rotation of crops, and slovenliness in cleaning the ground." In Virginia, once the world's major supplier of tobacco, entire counties lay barren, unable even to grow wheat, much less tobacco.
Ironically, the decline in American farm productivity came just as demand for produce and livestock was soaring because of an explosive growth of American and European cities. Farmers themselves were as alarmed as political and educational leaders by their scientific and technological backwardness and their inability to profit from growing demand for agricultural products.
Several scientific societies helped somewhat by disseminating the latest advances in British agriculture to American farmers. The three most significant educational factors in reviving American agriculture, however, were the development of the agricultural fair, the founding of science-based "how-to" periodicals for farmers and the founding of private and public agricultural schools. All three institutions remain the educative foundation of American agriculture.
Elkanah Watson, a businessman who had made and lost several fortunes by the time he was 50, was the founder of the first agricultural fair. Having scored a sudden and unexpected success raising Merino sheep, he organized 26 neighbors to stage the Berkshire Cattle Show in 1810 to display prize sheep. In 1811, he and the others organized the much broader Berkshire Agricultural Society, which absorbed the Cattle Show and became an annual event.
Encouraged by Watson, the Berkshire societies spread across the New England farmlands, expanding their annual fairs to combine education with entertainment that permitted entire farm families to profit from the event. Except in the South, farmers themselves joined and supported the societies, and state governments added funds to ensure their success as educative organizations. Southern farmers refused to participate in the agricultural education movement because they feared educating their slaves. Without education, however, slaves were unable to operate the new farm machinery that was helping upgrade the northern agricultural economy.
The Berkshire societies began to lose membership after the Civil War, as farmers found their new technology producing huge surpluses that big-city buyers were bidding down in price. Faced with financial losses, farmers turned to new types of self-help organizations such as the Grange and the Farmers' Alliances, which used political action to lead farmers in the battle against the growing number of trusts.
Through these new organizations, farmers eventually won U.S. government guarantees of price stability through a system of farm subsidies that assured farmers minimum prices for produce and livestock. The legacy of the Berkshire societies, however, continues in the still-popular state and county agricultural fairs that remain an integral part of American agricultural life.
The first successful farm publication was the American Farmer, an eight-page weekly founded in 1819 by John Stuart Skinner. Though not a farmer, Skinner had become alarmed by the exhausted lands and decline in farm productivity in his native Maryland. Skinner's weekly was the first of about 400 farm publications that would be published by the time of the Civil War. About 50 to 60 survived by then, with a total circulation of more than 250,000 farmers, to whom they disseminated information about the latest farm-management techniques.
The third factor in the revival of America's vital agricultural economy was the founding of new agricultural schools and the introduction of agricultural courses in existing schools. The first of these was the Gardiner Lyceum, which opened in Maine in 1821 to offer courses to farmers and "practical men however employed," to make them "skillful in their occupations." The Rensselaer Institute opened in New York three years later, offering courses in chemistry, botany and zoology, along with teaching demonstrations of "agricultural techniques and the use of fertilizer in the cultivation of vegetables."
Under pressure to help educate farmers and build a firm and lasting foundation for U.S. agriculture, academies and colleges across America began expanding their curricula to include agricultural courses and programs. In 1855, the state of Michigan opened the Michigan Agricultural College, and in 1862, the U.S. government joined the effort by passing the first Morrill Act. Often called the Land Grant College Act, the first Morrill Act created a department of agriculture, headed by a commissioner, and granted federal lands to each state to build at least one college offering "practical education." Under the law, each state would receive 30,000 acres for each senator and representative in Congress, and each college it built would have to offer complete courses of education in agriculture, mechanical arts, and military tactics, as well as scientific and classical studies.
In 1890, Congress passed a second Land Grant College Act that provided annual appropriations for all the land-grant colleges, which later evolved into today's system of state universities. A year earlier, Congress had elevated the Department of Agriculture to cabinet status and thus added a new dimension to U.S. agriculture education that would continue to this day through the various educational programs and experimental work conducted by the department. The thrust of many of the department's programs has changed, however, as the number of professional farmers has declined. Indeed, since 1900, when nearly half of all Americans lived on farms and ranches, the number of full-time farmers has dropped to fewer than 2 million, and the Department of Agriculture has redesigned many of its educational programs to meet the needs of home and property owners who need information on home design and maintenance, plant and lawn care, pet care, and the design and maintenance of flower and vegetable gardens.