Popular Science Monthly/Volume 23/September 1883/Agricultural Experiment Stations


WITHIN the past eight years there have been founded in several States institutions which, though they have not yet attracted much attention from the general public, can hardly fail to exert, in the near future, an important influence both on the material and mental welfare of the people. These institutions are the agricultural experiment stations, of which six now exist in this country, with a prospect of the speedy establishment of at least two more.

By an agricultural experiment station is understood an institution established and maintained "for the purpose of promoting agriculture by scientific investigation and experiments." Such institutions have, in most cases, owed their existence to governmental action, and have been sustained at the public expense, though in a few instances universities and private individuals have carried on what are in effect experiment stations, the most notable example of the latter being the well known Rothamsted experiments of Messrs. Lawes and Gilbert, in England.

Although experiment stations are still somewhat of a novelty in this country, they are far from being so in others. There is scarcely a country in Europe where one or more is not in operation, while in the German Empire they number not less than fifty. The first to be established was that at Rothamsted, just alluded to, in 1843. This has continued to the present time, though not under the name of an experiment station. Nine years later, the station at Möckern, in Saxony, which had been carried on for some two years by private and corporate generosity, received a grant of money from the state, and became the first public station. In 1853 a station was founded at Chemnitz, in 1855 one at Gross-Kmehlin, and, for the succeeding twenty-two years, 1860 was the only year which did not witness the institution of at least one station. Other European nations followed the example of the German states, and stations were established by France in 1856, by Austria in 1857, by Holland in 1857, by Sweden in 1861, by Russia in 1864, by Italy in 1870, by Denmark in 1871, by Belgium in 1872, by Switzerland in 1872, by Austro-Hungary in 1873, by Scotland in 1875, by Spain in 1876. The value of the scientific work done by these stations during the last thirty years and the impetus it has given to rational agriculture are very great. The fact that, in a volume published on the occasion of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Möckern station, one hundred and forty-six octavo pages are occupied with a list of the titles of papers published by them up to that time will give some idea of its amount.

The first experiment station in this country was founded at Middletown, Connecticut, in 1875, being supported in part by the State and in part by Wesleyan University. In 1877 it was reorganized and removed to New Haven, becoming entirely dependent on State support, and in 1882 it was provided with land and buildings by the State.

In 1877 North Carolina organized a station, located first at the State University at Chapel Hill, and subsequently at Raleigh. New Jersey followed the example of these two States in 1880, placing its station at the State Agricultural College at New Brunswick. The New York station was incorporated in 1881, and began operations in 1882 at Geneva. The Ohio station was organized in April, 1882, and is located at the State University at Columbus; and the Massachusetts station was organized in the autumn of the same year, at the Agricultural College at Amherst. The private experiment stations are represented by Houghton Farm, in New York, where experimental work was begun in 1879; and mention should also be made of the Cornell University experiment station at Ithaca, which has published a single report. At least two other States are debating the question of establishing stations, and there is every indication of a rapid multiplication of them in this country in the immediate future.

With regard to the value of experimental station work in America, it is yet too early to formulate an opinion. In general it may be said that the principal cause leading to the establishment of such stations was the great and steadily increasing extent to which commercial fertilizers are used in American agriculture, and to the absolute necessity which was felt for some means of protecting consumers against fraud in these articles, which are of such a nature that even the grossest frauds can in most cases be detected only by chemical analysis. Consequently, most of these stations were and are, first and foremost, fertilizer control stations. They put at the service of every consumer of fertilizers in their respective States the skill of professional chemists by whose aid he may test the genuineness and value of the goods he proposes to purchase. A method has also been worked out (the principle being adopted from the German stations) by which the money value of a fertilizer may be calculated approximately from the results of analysis and the market pi-ices of a few standard materials. Most or all of the stations follow the custom of frequently publishing analyses and valuations of the fertilizers brought to their notice, or in some cases of all brands sold in the State, and the publicity thus insured proves an efficient and sufficient check to fraudulent practices. Of late, a growing interest has manifested itself in the chemical examination of cattle-foods and their rational use, and numerous analyses of fodders have been made, accompanied in a few cases by practical feeding-trials. Other work has also been done to a less extent, but it is safe to say that, after deducting the fertilizer and fodder analyses from the work of our stations, the residue would be comparatively inconsiderable.

It was quite natural that the activity of the stations should at first take this direction. The fertilizer question was an important one, involving large money interests, and, moreover, it offered a field in which quick and tangible returns were yielded for the money invested in a station. The most short-sighted could not fail to see that the suppression of fraud in articles whose aggregate sales amounted to hundreds of thousands of dollars in single States annually was well worth the expenditure of a few thousand dollars for an experiment station. But the fertilizer question brought others in its train. Indeed, no small part of the benefit which our agriculture has derived from the introduction of commercial fertilizers has been entirely aside from the pecuniary advantage attending their use. They have aided in introducing definite ideas of what constitutes a fertilizer, and why. The habitual use of chemical analyses of fertilizers is rendering nitrogen, potash, and phosphoric acid almost as familiar terms as air, soil, and water, and thus is contributing in no small degree to the education of farmers. A knowledge of what fertilizers are has led to a demand for information as to how they act, and the most suitable method of using them, and the successes of science in this field have led to the inquiry whether the feeding of animals may not derive as much benefit from it as the feeding of plants. It would be difficult to-day to find an intelligent farmer who is opposed to experiment stations, or who would have them limited in their operations to the analysis of fertilizers. There is a general if not always intelligent demand for scientific experiments on plant and animal production, and we may venture to predict that in future such investigations will form a more important part of the work of our experiment stations than has hitherto been the case.

It is not proposed in this article to consider the propriety of the founding of experiment stations on the part of the State. That the general welfare is sufficiently promoted thereby to justify the expense appears evident to the writer, but the question has been practically decided in so many States that any discussion of it at this late day would be quite superfluous. It seems almost certain that within a few years a great development of the business of agricultural experimentation in this country will take place. What the nature of this development shall be and how it can be guided to the best results are questions alike interesting to the agriculturist, who hopes for personal advantage from it, and the statesman, who desires the prosperity of this most important branch of industry. Nor is it material benefits alone that may be anticipated from a wise treatment of this question. The educational influence of such a center of information and research as a good station should be, the influence which it would have on the intelligence and methods of thought of its constituents, is not easily overestimated.

What, then, should an experimental station be? How should it be organized, and by whom conducted? What should the public expect from it in return for its support? By what standard judge whether it is fulfilling the purpose of its existence?

Three courses are open, any one or all of which an experiment station may pursue:

First, it may undertake police duties, and devote its energies to the prevention or detection of fraud in fertilizers, fodders, seeds, foods, etc. This species of work has of necessity occupied the larger share of the attention of the American stations thus far, and, unless other means are provided for its performance, must continue to form an important part of their duties until human nature becomes other than it is.

A second and broader field of activity, and one whose importance, we venture to think, will be more and more appreciated from year to year, provided it is wisely cultivated, consists in applying what is now known of agricultural science to the conditions prevailing where the station is located. Such work, for example, would be a physical and chemical study of the different varieties of soil in the State with regard to the kinds of fertilizers best adapted to them, the most appropriate methods of tillage, the most suitable crops, etc.—in short, an agricultural survey of the State, the benefits of which would doubtless, in many cases, amply repay the expense of a station. Or, the leading crops of a State might be made the subject of scientific study, either with regard to their value as food for men and animals, or as to their demands on the soil for plant-food. The number of these examples might be increased manifold were it needful. Investigations of this sort would have for their main object the adaptation of general truths to local conditions. Their benefits would be immediate and evident, and they could not fail, if intelligently conducted, to exert a salutary influence on both the agriculture and menticulture of the region.

Third, an experiment station may make it its aim to advance agricultural science in general, without regard to obtaining immediately useful results.

This would probably be the most unpopular course it could pursue. The great demand is for something "practical," by which is meant something whose value is at once apparent, and can be measured in dollars and cents. This is true in all departments of mental activity, but in none more emphatically than in the one we are considering, unless, indeed, it be in education, and nowhere does the "practical man" render his impracticality more evident. It is a difficultly learned lesson that knowledge pays. We glibly repeat the maxim that "knowledge (i. e., science) is power," but we scarcely half believe it. What we mean is that knowing how to do some particular thing or things gives us power. But knowledge is power, nevertheless, to every man in his own way and along his own lines of work, and no knowledge is valueless to any man. Therefore it ought to be made possible for our experiment stations, and, indeed, made part of their duty, not only to teach their constituents how to use such knowledge of agricultural science as the world now possesses, but also to aid in increasing the common stock of knowledge. They should be originators as well as distributors of science. Can any one doubt, in view of the past history of science, that such a course would be of lasting benefit to agriculture? We need not seek for striking illustrations of the practical application of the discoveries of pure science to justify such an opinion, though such illustrations lie all about us, as, for example, the electric telegraph, the coal-tar colors, and Pasteur's method of inoculation for splenic fever, to mention no more. It is not in brilliant inventions or ingenious processes that the advancement of agricultural science is chiefly to be traced, but in the gradual separation of the false from the true, in a better understanding of the reasons of old methods, and the perception of how they should be modified to meet new conditions. In short, what science does for agriculture is not so much to transform the art or its processes, though it does much in that direction, as it is to educate the artisan. It does, indeed, put many new tools into his hand, but it also teaches him how to use old and new tools to the best advantage.

Our State and national governments have recognized the importance of agricultural education by founding the agricultural colleges, and in so doing they have done well; but, unless we are prepared to maintain that we know already all that we can or all that we need of the science of agriculture, the system needs, to complete it, such provision for increasing our knowledge in this direction as well-equipped experiment stations can furnish. Despite the great advances of agricultural science in the last thirty years, there is still a vast region to be explored; there are many errors to be corrected and partial views to be extended; and, unless the professors in our agricultural colleges have and impart to their students a sense of the extent of their ignorance and a thirst for more and fuller knowledge, their instruction will be largely fruitless. We must provide for teaching the teachers. As the colleges are now situated, it is in most cases practically impossible for the professors to undertake any extended experimental work. Agricultural experimentation, especially, demands both time and money, and usually no large amount of either is available for it. It is not a work that can be taken up at odd minutes, in the intervals of other occupations, with any hope of success. It must be followed as a business, and this it can be only in an institution maintained for this purpose—i. e., in an experiment station.

It would appear, then, that agricultural experiment stations are important agents in promoting the welfare of the agricultural classes, and through them that of the whole community. They may do this by repressing fraud or adulteration, and thus preventing pecuniary loss; or, by developing practical applications of scientific principles, and thus leading to pecuniary gain; or, last, but by no means least, by promoting the advancement of agricultural science and of sound agricultural education, and so contributing both to the physical and mental well-being of important classes in the community.

We emphasize this latter function of experiment stations, not with a desire to depreciate their other uses, which are highly important, but which are also sure of general appreciation, but because it is the one most likely to be overlooked, and because it seems to us the most important of all. Our experiment stations will doubtless continue to test fertilizers, seeds, etc., as they have done, and they will, in all likelihood, extend the scope and number of their field and feeding experiments. How far they will enter upon purely scientific work it is not so easy to foretell. Many, doubtless, will take it up to a small extent, if at all, finding their time and means fully occupied with other things. It must also depend largely on the public sentiment, particularly in the case of stations supported by the State, and it is perhaps questionable whether much but "practical" work can be expected from them. Private stations, of course, would be free from any limitations arising from lack of public appreciation, and, provided their means were adequate, might very appropriately devote themselves to the cultivation of agricultural science. It would seem, too, that agricultural colleges or even other institutions of learning, in view of their special interest in the educational aspect of the matter, might very properly establish stations for scientific investigations bearing on agriculture, as has been done by several German universities. Here, however, financial questions would, under present circumstances, be likely to prove a serious obstacle to such a project; but, whether practicable at present or not, the question of promoting agricultural science in this way is one worthy of thoughtful attention.

A no less important question than that of the kind of work a station should do is that of who shall conduct its work, and how the station should be organized. Local circumstances will, of course, decide the form which the business organization shall take; we are concerned here only with the conduct of the actual station-work. It may be remarked in passing, however, that it is eminently desirable to keep the station out of "politics," and free from the control of "rings," and to provide it with an assured income. This much settled, to what sort of a man shall we confide the direction of the station? This must evidently depend on what the station is to be. If its business is to be simply the analysis of fertilizers, etc., what is needed is a man with sufficient technical ability for the work, and whose character will command the confidence of all parties concerned. For anything beyond this, however, something more than an analyst is needed.

An impression prevails somewhat widely that because an agricultural experiment station is designed to advance agriculture, its director must be, first of all, a practical farmer. It is said, or intimated, that only such a one can be trusted to expend the State's money in a way really profitable to agricultural interests; and the same feeling finds expression in covert sneers at scientists as "doctrinaires," and "theorists," and "impractical." We maintain, on the contrary, that the prime requisite in the director of a good experiment station is thorough scientific training. It is not necessary that he possess the highest degree of talent for original research, but a training in the scientific methods of working and thinking is absolutely indispensable to lasting success. That this is true in case the station is to be devoted mainly to scientific research will probably be admitted at once, but it is equally true when the work to be done is making so-called "practical experiments." A truly scientifically conducted practical experiment differs from those practical experiments which thinking farmers are continually trying for themselves, not in being made on a larger scale, or with a more elaborate plan, or with greater accuracy in weighing and measuring—all these differences may exist, but they are differences of degree, not of kind—but in being so conducted that at its close it is possible to know how far the results can be trusted. It is this characteristic, and this alone, which gives them their greater value, and justifies the expenditure of the public funds to make them. Farmers have been experimenting since Adam was expelled from Eden, yet scarcely a meeting of farmers occurs where the most diverse opinions are not maintained on the most familiar subjects. Our experiment stations should improve on this state of things. It is a comparatively simple matter to make experiments—as simple as playing Hamlet's pipe—but to so experiment as to obtain results that will stand is quite another matter. Experimenting is an art, and requires an apprenticeship no less than music. Now, all real scientific training—cramming we do not consider—is a training in the art of experimenting, and hence the statement, that the first qualification for the director of an experiment station is scientific training, is equivalent to saying that he must have learned his trade.

In the second place, the director of an experiment station must know what experiments to make as well as how to make them. He must be familiar with the needs of agriculture on the one hand, in order not to waste time in making needless experiments; and he must know what other experimenters have done, that he may not needlessly repeat their work.

To sum up briefly, the director of an agricultural experiment station should be a trained scientist, who has made a special study of agricultural science, and who is reasonably familiar with agricultural practice. We have named these requirements in what we believe to be the order of their importance. A certain measure of all of them is indispensable, but deficiencies in the latter two may be more or less readily made up, while lack of the first is, in our view of the matter, fatal.

Many other points regarding the organization and management of experiment stations suggest themselves for consideration, but it is the purpose of this article simply to point out the general principles which should prevail in the founding of these stations, their organization, and the determination of their lines of work. In the decision of these questions public opinion is the most powerful factor, and if this paper shall contribute in any degree to the formation of liberal and enlightened views on a subject of growing importance, or even succeed in awakening more general interest in it, and directing inquiry toward it, its object will have been accomplished.