This article discusses agricultural education in the United States. The topic of agricultural education, at least in a formal sense, dates back to the agricultural societies in the 18th century. Later, with the passage of the Morrill Act (1862), the Hatch Act (1887), the Smith-Lever Act (1914) and Smith-Hughes Act (1917), agricultural education became a staple of the public school curriculum, where it has remained ever since. In the 20th century, organizations such as the Future Farmers of America (later changed to the FFA Organization) were formed to help students apply their agricultural education through hands-on activities such as a supervised agricultural experience. In the 21st century, as agriculture has been transformed through a revolution in biotechnology, agricultural educators are struggling to deal with the ramifications as they attempt to prepare students for possible careers in an agribusiness, an industry that accounts for over 16 percent of the nation's Gross Domestic Product. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is helping to lead these educational efforts.
Farming is at the heart of America, and agricultural education is essential to the future of American agriculture. As late as 1860, a full three-quarters of the American people were living on farms or in small towns of less than 2,500 people (Walker, 1967, p. 14), and there were only sixteen cities with a population over 50,000 (Walker, 1967, p. 54). All told, for more than two centuries after the Pilgrims arrived, the United States was primarily an agricultural economy. Until 1880, more than half of its workforce was involved in farming ("Discovering America's Past," 1993, p. 183).
Origins of Agricultural Education
Agricultural education stretches far back into the nation's past. It began with agricultural societies in the eighteenth century, which brought together farmers to develop friendships, pool their knowledge, and encourage one another. Some of these societies had some famous members--in the nineteenth century, "John C. Calhoun and his son-in-law Thomas Green Clemson, benefactors of Clemson Agricultural College, were members of the Pendleton Farmers Society" in South Carolina (Fravel, 2004, p. ii).
These societies often were for adults, but soon formal agricultural education was extended to children. Examples of early agricultural educational schools included the Gardiner Lyceum in Maine and the Boston Asylum and Farm School, the latter of which was established in 1832 as a place "where idle and morally exposed children of the city can be rescued from vice and danger" (cited in Moore, 2007).
Land Grant Colleges
In 1862, as the Civil War was raging, the U.S. Congress created the Department of Agriculture with the purpose of using it as the repository and distribution center for agricultural information. This was followed up the same year with the federal creation of land-grant schools under the Morrill Act, which gave federal land to the states. The land was given on the condition that "each State which may take and claim the benefit of this Act, to the endowment, support, and maintenance of at least one college where the leading object shall be, without excluding other scientific and classical studies and including military tactics, teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts, in such manner as the legislatures of the States may respectively prescribe, in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes on the several pursuits and professions in life" (Morrill Act, 1862, Sec.4.).
The 1887 Hatch Act created federally funded agricultural research stations across the country, and this work soon found its way to the farmers in the fields, who benefited from newer and more efficient farming techniques.
Improving Farming Methods
Later, with the passage of the Smith-Lever Act of 1914, the mandate of land-grant colleges was expanded to include cooperative education in which agricultural experts went into rural communities to share the benefits of their research. Farmers clamored to learn modern farming methods that would increase yields and reduce the amount of laborers required to harvest crops. Economies of scale led to the creation of large-scale farms and ranches.
The results of this knowledge transfer were astounding: between 1860 and 1915, tobacco production doubled, corn production tripled, and cotton production quadrupled. Wheat production rose from 173 million bushels a year to over one billion (Robertson, 1955, pp. 221-222). Between 1870 and 1900, agricultural exports nearly tripled, as did the number of American farms (Robertson, 1955, p. 229).
Agriculture in the Schools
The success of modern farming techniques fed upon itself. At the turn of the twentieth century, seeking to meet the demand, many states began teaching agriculture in their public schools. Some states, like North Carolina in 1903, made it a requirement that elementary school children learn about agriculture. Other states such as South Carolina were equally as dedicated to agricultural education:
"South Carolina was active in attempts to infuse Agricultural Education into the public school system and rural communities. A series of demonstration trains traversed the state providing first hand opportunities for individuals to examine the revelations in agricultural techniques. A series of agricultural clubs, including boy's corn clubs, pig clubs, and even demonstration farms on schoolhouse grounds linked Agricultural Educators with school students. Prior to the Smith-Hughes method of vocational agriculture, students in sections of the state received textbook-based instruction in agriculture" (Fravel, 2004, p. ii).
In 1911, six years before the passage of the Smith-Hughes Act, the North Carolina Legislature created a new type of boarding school called farm life schools. These schools were farms that taught practical skills such agriculture and home economics. According to Moore (2007), who studied the curricula at Cary Farm Life School, the education consisted of a four-year academic program combined with hands-on agriculture training:
Table 1: Example of Farm Life School Curriculum
First Year Second Year Third Year Fourth Year Principles of architecture Field crops Livestock feeding, breeding & judging Soils Farm carpentry different soils, fertilizers, cultivation Raising poultry Farm management Using tools seed selection & testing Rural economics Building needed objects Growing fruits & vegetables (each student gets his own garden plot) Marketing challenges & opportunities (Adapted from Moore, 2007)
By 1915, 4,665 high schools across the United States offered agriculture classes to 90,708 students (Moore, 1987).
Smith-Hughes as a Watershed Event
The passage of the Smith-Hughes Act in 1917 built upon these successes in agricultural education. The purpose of the act was as follows:
"Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That in order to aid in acquiring and diffusing among the people of the United States useful and practical information on subjects connected with agriculture, and to promote scientific investigation and experiment respecting the principles and application of agricultural science, there shall be established under direction of the college or colleges or agricultural departments of colleges in each State and Territory an agricultural experiment station" (Smith-Hughes Act, 1917, cited in Moore, 1987).
The act helped catalyze the agricultural education movement across the United States by helping to fund agricultural education programs in public schools, thereby creating a demand for agricultural education teachers. In South Carolina, "Clemson College, still in its infancy, quickly arose to provide a new program to train collegiate students to become what were then referred to as 'Smith-Hughes men'" (Fravel, 2004, p. iii).
Federal support for agricultural education continued after World War II, with the passage of the George-Barden Act of 1946, which funded farming instruction in American public high schools. This federal training...
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