The past collided with the present during a drive through Waseca, which is a small community smack dab in the middle of fertile farmland in southern Minnesota.
The past includes Farmamerica, the state’s agriculture interpretive history center that includes a pioneer farmstead, one from the 1950s and another set in the present. In normal times, it hosts tours that bring farming to life for schoolchildren and others.
Waseca was — before times, culture and farming changed, and budgets tightened — a regional agriculture education hub. The United States has a long history of involvement in ag education, starting with the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862, which established institutions of higher education across the country. The feds created experiment stations in 1914 to provide farmers with practical crop and livestock management learning opportunities.
By 1940, almost half of the government’s research and development spending involved agriculture research. The work took on new urgency in the aftermath of World War II when it was decided that best way to help the starving populations of Europe avoid falling into communist hands was increased U.S. food production.
Mass starvation fermented communist revolt, and the crisis, in the minds of many, was the worst humanitarian threat the world had ever faced. The United States, although it avoided the widespread property destruction of the war, had willingly sacrificed.
A long list of items — meat, butter, cheese, canned milk, sugar, tires, gas, shoes, fuel oil and kerosene — were rationed in those years. Farm equipment manufacturers had transformed factories into military equipment production; new farm machinery and tires were seldom available. After the war, official policy was that veterans had first dibs on new machinery, but the rule was easily circumvented.
Tractor manufacturers responded to pent-up demand by offering more tractor models with increased horsepower, and a greater emphasis was placed on convenience and safety. The first padded tractor seats were offered, and rudimentary safety devices installed.
Hundreds of thousands of veterans eager to reestablish themselves in civilian life returned to farms across the country.
The government’s answer was to educate veterans on better farming practices. To that end, veterans were encouraged to take locally offered agriculture classes in less-busy winter months in return for monthly government checks.
Locally based instructors taught the classes, offered management advice, and visited their farmer-clients on-site. Farmers who participated received approximately $160 monthly to participate, which, although not a king’s ransom, was invaluable to many.
The Southern School of Agriculture admitted its first students in 1953. The school, which boarded school-age children from farm families, operated on a sixth-month schedule. It started later in the fall so students could help with harvest, and dismissed students earlier in spring so they could help with fieldwork. The curriculum continued to emphasize agriculture subjects until it closed in 1973.
The University of Minnesota opened a two-year technology college in Waseca in 1971. The institution had more than 20,000 enrollees before it ended operations in 1993. Despite local opposition, much of the campus was transformed into a federal prison.
The Southern Experiment Station, which has been located just south of Waseca since the early 20th century, held education meetings on campus throughout the college’s existence. Some events discussed weed problems, mastitis and other animal-health issues, as well as marketing. The experiment station, like others across the Midwest, continues to hold invaluable field days.
However, financial pressure and changing agriculture moved Extension in Minnesota and other states to adjust service delivery in many counties. Fourteen regional Extension offices were established statewide, which was fiercely opposed by those convinced service would suffer.
Extension continues to play a vital role as a provider of unbiased research information. The professionals who staff offices across the Midwest remain the strongest link between the grassroots and land grant institutions. Needs and delivery systems change, but the goal remains the same — to help farmers and their families.
Mychal Wilmes is the retired managing editor of Agri News. He lives in West Concord, Minn., with his wife, Kathy.