The Farmers’ Institutes of Minnesota, 1880s-1920s

Farmers’ Institute at Badger, Minnesota, in Roseau County, June 9, 1904 / Minnesota Historical Society

By Dr. R.L. Cartwright / 06.27.2013
American Historian

In the 1880s, Minnesota farmers saw the need for education but resisted “book farming,” or learning how to farm by reading instructional text. Farmers’ institutes, lecture series that traveled to rural communities and taught practical farming skills, were popular alternatives in the 1880s through the 1920s.

By the 1870s, Minnesota farmers were over reliant on wheat and did not have the knowledge to grow other crops or raise livestock in the cold climate. Relying on one main crop depleted the soil. Further, without more crop diversity, natural threats like the grasshopper plagues of 1873-1878 wiped out entire farms and communities.

The University of Minnesota (U of M) hired an agricultural professor in 1869. The farming course was very poorly attended, however, and the first three professors quit after short tenures. University President William W. Folwell appointed a new professor, Edward D. Porter, in 1881. Porter began holding public lecture courses for farmers. This idea came from the informal farmers’ institutes that began in New England around 1850. Yet Porter’s lectures were still disappointing. They were attended primarily by non-farmers who lived in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

The first successful farmers’ institutes were held by Oren C. Gregg, a respected dairy farmer from Lyon County. He gave lectures at fairs around the state beginning around 1884. Although his first audiences were small, the crowds grew along with Gregg’s reputation.

In 1886, the Minnesota Farmers’ Alliance militantly attacked the U of M for failing to meet its agricultural mandate. Other farm groups, such as the Minnesota State Grange, supported the Farmers’ Alliance. As a land grant college, the U of M was required to deliver farm and mechanical instruction. The Farmers’ Alliance threatened to create their own agriculture college.

To pacify farmers, Governor Charles Pillsbury called Gregg to Minneapolis. Gregg proposed university institutes, staffed by men who could speak to farmers in terms they understood. The university soon hired Gregg to assist Porter and oversee such institutes for the U of M.

In 1886, the university organized thirty-one institutes. Gregg, Porter, and Maria Sanford were among the speakers. The initial response was mixed, and some farmers were hostile to the idea. This soon changed.

In 1887, Gregg was hired as the superintendent of the Farmers’ Institutes, after the state legislature approved the funding. Under his leadership, the lectures quickly became very popular. He made sure he held institutes in areas that farmers could easily travel to and in communities that would welcome his lectures.

Gregg’s teaching focused on crop diversification and dairy farming. In the early years, speakers used demonstrations and illustrations to create spectacles that attracted crowds. In 1890, Gregg added cooking schools for women. He began to hire more specialists who could speak about horticulture, horses, and sheep.

By the early twentieth century, however, agricultural education was changing. Critics believed that it was not enough to have one institute per year in each location. They foresaw the extension system that would permanently locate an agricultural agent in each rural county. Gregg resisted this transition, and he refused to change his program. On August 8, 1907, Gregg said he would not serve another term.

Archie D. Wilson was chosen to replace him. Wilson was born in Hastings in 1875 and had graduated from the U of M’s College of Agriculture in 1905. Wilson made sure the institutes would have closer ties to the university. He hired more speakers, so institutes could be held in more communities.

Wilson held 312 institutes during the 1908 to 1909 institute year. He also began to supplement the institutes with rural cooperation clubs. Co-ops made it easier for farmers to test their milk, breed livestock, and market their products. Wilson hoped these clubs could eventually replace the institutes.

The county extension system was formally created in 1912, but Wilson’s clubs had served the same purpose since 1908. Farmers’ institutes became less important after the extension system came about. A few meetings were held in the 1920s, but institutes were clearly on the way out. The extension system, although more comprehensive, built on the educational foundation laid down by the institutes.

Originally published by the Minnesota Historical Society under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.