Popular Science Monthly/Volume 39/July 1891/Our Agricultural Experiment Stations

1196578Popular Science Monthly Volume 39 July 1891 — Our Agricultural Experiment Stations1891Charles Lathrop Parsons



WHEN, in 1851, a small local society of German farmers at Möckern, Saxony, realizing that scientific investigation could help solve the many obscure problems of their life, contributed from their own resources and asked their Government for aid to establish an experiment station to study such problems, a new epoch was begun in the history of agriculture. The idea that scientific research could be of use in studying and solving the questions related to the farm was by no means a new one. The educated proprietors of Europe were even then beginning to reap the proceeds of chemistry applied to agriculture. The work of Chaptal, Davy, Sprengel, and De Saussure, in the earlier part of the century, had been continued, supplemented, broadened, and enlarged by the great chemist Liebig, whose Chemistry in its Application to Agriculture and Physiology had opened the eyes of many well-known scientists, and given to intelligent farmers a new and brilliant field of labor.

In 1831 Mr. John Bennet Lawes, since knighted in reward for his labors, began experiments upon fertilization on a small scale. He gradually increased them until 1843, when he associated with himself the now celebrated chemist, Dr. J. H. Gilbert, and from that time he dates the establishment of the Rothamstead Experiment Station. Almost coexistent with the first work of Lawes in England, Boussingault began the study of plant physiology and nutrition on his farm and in his private laboratory in Alsatia. Many schools and universities already had zealous workers in this field, and numerous agricultural societies had their more or less active chemists.

But the epoch begun at Möckern in 1851 was new. The work which had been already accomplished had been so brilliant, so practical, so helpful, that when the society at Möckern established the first German experiment station, and secured government aid for it, the scientific German mind became fully aroused. It needed but two years of its valuable work to demonstrate its usefulness, and in 1853 the good example set by the Möckern farmers was followed by those of Chemnitz, also in Saxony.

From this time on agricultural experiment stations have multiplied so rapidly in Europe that it has been almost impossible to keep statistical pace with their growth. In 1856 there were five, in 1866 there were thirty, in 1873 there were sixty-three, while today there are one hundred and ten in France and Germany alone.

Fortunately for American farmers, a young American of exceptional intellectual abilities, reared in an agricultural community, and full of interest and zeal for his chosen profession of chemistry, went to Germany in 1853 to finish his studies at the University of Leipsic. Although Samuel W. Johnson had chosen scientific pursuits, he had by no means lost his interest in rural life, and, when led by chance or accident within so short a distance of the new station at Möckern, he at once became imbued with its life and spirit. The career of Samuel W. Johnson, now Professor of Agricultural Chemistry in the Sheffield Scientific School, and Director of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, was begun, and a fame was started which, gradually increasing with his investigations and published works, has reached a height in agricultural science which many will strive to reach in vain. He must always be considered the pioneer of America in science applied to agriculture-Fortunately, also, another young man, whose chief fault was in being born a few years later than his teacher, went to take a post-graduate course under Prof. Johnson, at New Haven. Receiving his doctor's degree in 1860, Wilbur O. Atwater went to Germany and there made a special study of the then largely increased number of experiment stations.

In 1872 the question had been discussed at a convention held in Washington, but on the 17th of December, 1873, the first direct effort to start an agricultural experiment station on this continent was made. Dr. Atwater on that day read a paper before an assembly of Connecticut farmers, in which he strongly advocated the establishment of such a station. His remarks were supplemented by Prof. Johnson; and, although the idea was new to most of those present, their arguments were so clear and convincing that a committee of eight was appointed to try and secure an appropriation from their Legislature for the purpose. The Connecticut Legislature, however, was composed mainly of farmers, and, strange as it may seem, the prejudice and sneers against "book farming" has caused by far the larger number of like bills to fail in such bodies whenever they have appeared. So it was here, although numerous petitions had been circulated about the State and very generally signed. The following winter also much hard work was done to arouse public sentiment in favor of the project; but still the next Legislature, although confronted by an increased number of petitions, could not be prevailed upon to pass the appropriation of $8,000 a year which was asked.

At this juncture Mr. Orange Judd, who had been an enthusiastic believer in the good of such an organization, came forward and offered the use of the laboratories of Wesleyan University, on behalf of the trustees of that institution, and $1,000 on his own part, provided the Legislature would appropriate $2,800 a year, for two years, to help pay the necessary expenses. The matter being brought in this light to the Legislature, it immediately passed the necessary bill, and the first American experiment station was established, October 1, 1875, at Middletown, with Dr. W. O. Atwater, who had been an indefatigible worker for the cause, and to whom the chief credit for the station's establishment is undoubtedly due, as its first director.

The work accomplished in those first two years—accomplished under such disadvantages that only a specialist can realize them—was so helpful to the Connecticut farmers that they could but acknowledge its benefits and provide for its continuance. When the two years were ended, the annual appropriation was increased to $5,000; and the Sheffield Scientific School having offered accommodations, the experiment station was reorganized at New Haven, with Prof. Johnson in charge. Three years later the appropriation was again increased to $8,000 yearly, and a special grant of $25,000 was made to permanently establish it on land and in buildings of its own.

The experiment station thus begun has saved thousands of dollars to Connecticut. Even in the first few years of its existence it was so apparent, and could so easily be shown, that the station was yearly saving several times its cost, that it was impossible for it to remain in obscurity, even if such had been its desire. Its fame soon spread beyond the limits of its own State, and numerous deputations were received from others who desired to examine into its workings. In 1876 California followed the example of the Middletown Station. In 1877 the North Carolina Station was organized. The Cornell University Station came next; then New Jersey, New York at Geneva; Ohio, Tennessee, Massachusetts, and others; so that, when the Hatch act of March 2, 1887, passed Congress, seventeen had been organized in fourteen States.

The so-called Hatch act gave a new and great impetus to the work of experiment stations in this country. It could not have been otherwise, for it made provision for an appropriation of $15,000 a year to each State or Territory that would accept the trust, to establish a station in connection with its agricultural college, or to aid such stations already established. All of the States, except Montana, Washington, and Idaho, have taken advantage of the act, as have also New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah. Some have more than one, and some who have only one regular experiment station have organized one or more branch stations located in different sections of the State. If these branch stations be excluded, there are now fifty-three experiment stations in the United States; while, if they be counted, there are sixty-nine.

Congress saw fit to leave the government of the stations which it established to the various States in connection with their agricultural colleges, whose trustees generally have it in charge, and as a whole, or through properly authorized committees, engage specialists to carry on the work. The scientists thus engaged necessarily vary in their specialties with the lines of research which each particular station desires to undertake. The study of agriculture is a complex one, and there is scarcely a branch of science which is not called upon to take its part in the common advancement. A director is generally the first officer chosen. He is supposed to be a man well versed in the past literature of the subject, well known in his special branch of study, and of good executive ability. In the older stations this office is generally held by a chemist of long experience in agricultural experimentation. This is the case in the Massachusetts Station, where the work of Director Charles A. Goessmann has been of incalculable benefit to the agriculture of his State. This is also true of both Connecticut Stations, of the New York Station at Geneva, of the California Station, the Pennsylvania Station, the North Carolina Station, and others. At present, perhaps in the larger number of cases, the director's office is held by an experienced agriculturist, known for his ability to apply the results of previous scientific research to his particular branch, Besides a director, there are usually one or more chemists, an agriculturist, a horticulturist, and a botanist. Entomologists, veterinarians, meteorologists, biologists, microscopists, physicists, mycologists, viticulturists, geologists, etc., follow numerically in the order in which they are mentioned, and receive their appointment according to the several needs of the stations by which they are engaged. In all there are now four hundred and twenty-three persons employed in these stations, whose names are published as on the station staffs.

Although the experiment stations were left entirely independent of each other and any central head by the Hatch act, so that they have perfect freedom in their actions so long as they adhere to the purpose of the law, still Congress very wisely established a central office, under the Department of Agriculture, to collect and publish summaries of station work and thought in condensed and popular form for the use of the public; to publish special bulletins for experiment-station workers; digests of station reports; monographs, etc., and in general to serve as a medium of information and exchange.

A movement which in fifteen years increased the number of regularly organized experiment stations in our own country from one to fifty; whose influence has extended to Canada, South America, Australia, and Japan, causing the establishment of similar stations in those countries; which this year will expend approximately $1,000,000 in the United States alone, exclusive of the work of the Department of Agriculture; which during the year will send bulletins direct to nearly 400,000 farmers; and whose workings have been kept, in the main, free from politics must have had a worthy object, efficient workers, and given practical and useful results. That such is the case none familiar with the investigations of at least the older stations can deny.

The science of agriculture must always be the mother of its art, and to aid the art through the study of the science agricultural experiment stations were established. They were started to conduct experiments upon plants and animals and the needs of both; to improve the useful ones and eradicate the harmful; to study their nutrition in all its phases and determine the chemical composition of their foods; to learn how to cure their diseases, and promote their health; and besides increasing their productiveness and the quality of their products by proper food and care, to also introduce new and valuable ones from other localities. They were intended to study fertilizers and fertilization; the vitality and germination of seed; the variability of soils and waters; rainfall and general climatic conditions; and other questions influencing rural economy. But this was not all, for their chief aim was to distribute information, and to help educate the occupants of our farms and plantations, giving new aims, zest, and ambition to their too often humdrum life. In short, the United States experiment stations aim to help the American farmer in mind and pocket.

The greatest obstacle which the stations have met has been a demand by the farmers for immediate results, and a prejudice against the laboratory and its work; but this gradually disappears as the farmers become more and more familiar with science. On this account the older stations are undoubtedly doing better work to-day than those of more recent origin, which are still struggling against this sentiment. Experience has taught, not only in Germany but here, that thoroughly scientific investigation invariably gives the most practical final result. As a rule, the older stations also have the most experienced and best-known agricultural scientists in their employ; but this is not always the case. With the large increase in the number of experiment stations which took place in 1887-'88 came a corresponding demand for the services of these experienced men, and several accepted more lucrative positions than they had previously held.

The demand for experienced men was, however, far in excess of the supply. From seventeen the number of experiment stations suddenly increased to fifty, with nothing like a proportional increase in men who were capable at the outset of filling the places to which they were appointed. At first, many places were undoubtedly filled by popular favorites, appointed to their positions through the influence of farmers' organizations or for wholly local reasons. Some of these have proved worthy of the trust and by hard study and work are building up their departments and themselves.

But the lack of suitable men has not been the only drawback to the work of the younger stations. Two clauses in the act passed by Congress allowing only three thousand dollars of the first and seven hundred and fifty dollars of each succeeding appropriation to be used for buildings and requiring that from the very first at least four bulletins a year be issued, while ultimately it may prove of advantage to them, has certainly tended at first to bring them no praise. It was supposed that the States would furnish buildings, but unfortunately some of them furnished either inadequate ones or none at all, and in one or two instances even the annual appropriation which the State had previously given to the agricultural college was abolished. The fact that quarterly bulletins were required by law, whether the station had valuable matter on hand or not, coupled with the fact that in many instances men wholly new to the business had to write them, tended at first to distribute more or less matter of questionable value. As the bulletins have general circulation among the class for which they were intended only in the State in which they were issued, many States necessarily sent out some compilations on the same topics which, to all practical purposes, were duplicates of each other. Bulletins, too, had to be written in popular style, in order that they might be understood by men whose education, in too many instances, had been limited to the winter district school. If it be also remembered that these newly formed stations have been organized scarcely three years and have not been in working order for that length of time; that they are going through the same trials as the older stations have had; that they have to break down the prejudices of many farmers, as the older stations have largely done; and that they were popularly expected to show in a few months results equal to those which even the German experiment stations have conquered only after years of strict application with the aid of the best of the scientists of that scientific nation—it can not be wondered at that these new-born stations have in several instances fallen short of what was expected of them. While in some cases the three-year-old stations may not as yet be able to show results equivalent to the $45,000 received by them in that time, still, as a whole, I think, no intelligent agriculturist familiar with their workings will deny that they have more than returned the appropriations received by them. In fact, I doubt if the increased value of commercial fertilizers, to improve which the stations were first established in this country, has not in itself more than balanced the account.

But while the younger stations are asked for immediate results to meet the popular demand, it must not be supposed that these results are all worthless or hastily compiled. To the contrary, they have profited by the example of the older stations, and many most excellent showings can be made, while many of the bulletins, compiled in some instances from work done at other places, on the scientific principle of stock-feeding, fertilization, and other topics, have been issued as an educating medium, and to familiarize the farmers with unavoidable technical terms and expressions.

While there is scarcely a science that has not been called into play in some one of the experiment stations, still, chemistry has its place in all and is pre-eminent in most. Horticulture, botany, and entomology are of course extremely prominent, while the study of fungi and bacteria is steadily increasing. But to review the present work of the various stations nothing better than the following summary, from an official report of recent date, can be given: "Twenty-seven stations are studying problems relating to meteorology and climatic conditions. Thirty-one are studying the soil, by investigations of its geology, physics, or chemistry; experiments in tillage, drainage, or irrigation; soil tests with fertilizers, or other experimental inquiries. Thirty-five are making analyses of commercial or home-made fertilizers, or are conducting field experiments with fertilizers. Thirty-nine are studying the more important crops with reference to the methods of culture, manuring, and rotations; varieties adapted to different localities and purposes; and chemical composition and nutritive value. Twenty-five stations are investigating the composition of feeding-stuffs, and in some instances making digestion experiments. Seventeen are dealing with questions relating to silos and silage. Twenty-four are conducting feeding experiments for milk, beef, mutton, or pork, or are studying different methods of feeding. Eighteen are investigating subjects related to dairying, including the chemistry of milk, bacteria of milk, creaming, butter-making, and the construction and management of creameries. At least thirty-three stations are studying methods of chemical analysis. Botanical studies occupy more or less of the attention of thirtythree stations; these include investigations in systematic and physiological botany, mycology with special reference to the diseases of plants, the testing of seeds with reference to their vitality and purity, and classification of weeds, and methods for their eradication. Thirty-five work to a greater or less extent in horticulture, testing varieties of vegetables and fruits, and making studies in varietal improvement and synonymy. Nine have begun operations in forestry. Twenty-five investigate injurious insects, with a view to their prevention or destruction. Fifteen give attention to veterinary science. At least four are experimenting in apiculture and three in aviculture. Sugar-making is experimented with at six stations, but the Louisiana Sugar Experiment Station does far more in this direction than any other." Thus it will be seen that the work is quite varied and comprehensive.

The work is progressive and is progressing rapidly. As the workers gain new knowledge and experience they gain new ambition to excel and aid the advancement of their particular branch of science by opening to it a new field for development. This field is a grand one; few have more or more interesting problems to solve or offer more for their solution.

In the fifteen years during which experiment stations have existed in the United States much advancement has been made in the art of agriculture and much money saved to our farmers. While the stations can not claim sole credit for this progress, they can claim a good share of the praise, and can show many broad and useful results of their work. It is next to impossible to enumerate these results, to show their full application, or even to give examples which will do them justice. Still, a few of general applicability may perhaps be cited with interest.

The chief argument raised in favor of the establishment of the first station in Connecticut was the fact that a few analyses of commercial fertilizers, made in the laboratories of the Sheffield Scientific School, had revealed, beyond a doubt, that immense frauds were being perpetrated in their sale upon the farmers of the State. The fact that crops responded so well to a really good fertilizer, and that it could be easily imitated by a worthless article whose uselessness was only made apparent by chemical analysis or crop failure, made these frauds easy and frequent. When the station was established the improvement of existing fertilizers and exposure of frauds was made its first duty. Before buying a fertilizer, any Connecticut farmer could have it analyzed free of charge, and its ingredients in valuable plant-food were thus previously made known. The station itself sent agents around the State and procured samples of fertilizers offered for sale, which were also analyzed. Excellent fertilizers were found, others little better than good surface soil; but the price of all was too much in excess of their valuation, or, in other words, the crude materials from which the fertilizers were mixed could have been bought by the farmers for much less than the fertilizers themselves. Finally, the analyses were published, with the poor ones and frauds fearlessly assailed, and the best ones pointed out. The result was inevitable. Honest fertilizer manufacturers co-operated with the station. Other States than Connecticut passed the necessary laws, took up the same work, found the same conditions and eradicated them; so that to-day the average cost of fertilizers exceeds their valuation barely enough to pay for mixing, while frauds have almost totally disappeared. When we consider that hundreds of thousands of tons of commercial fertilizers, averaging at least thirty dollars per ton, are annually applied to our soils, we can scarcely overestimate the value of this one line of work. The Director of the New York Station, Dr. Peter Collier, calculated in 1888 that the effect of twenty years of fertilizer control had been an average saving of 61*43 per cent in the cost of the three constituents of plant-food which are liable to be deficient in soils. The German experiment stations have had very similar experience.

It has long been known that no single plant furnishes the kind and amount of nutriment to give the best results with animals when fed to them, and farmers have used varying combinations of greater or less value for years. The German experiment stations took up, among their earlier investigations, the determination of the basis upon which the efficiency of these combinations rested, and after years of study it was found that it was due in the main to the relation existing between the digestible nitrogenous and non-nitrogenous constituents of the food; that the ratio between these ought to vary according to the purposes for which the animal was fed; and the amount of digestible nitrogenous and non-nitrogenous food which was necessary for the various purposes was determined. The tables thus given to the world by German investigation have been found to not wholly agree with our conditions, but they have been of invaluable service in applying the sound principle which underlies them to American stock-feeding; and it has been an important part of the work of our experiment stations to adapt them to our somewhat different needs. A large amount of success has attended their efforts, and, while the principle of feeding, according to the chemical composition of the food, can not as yet be said to be of anything like general application in the United States, still it is quite widely used, with greater or less success. For the more important purposes for which animals are fed, our ordinary plants, with the exception of some of the leguminosæ, contain too little nitrogen, and it has been found necessary to supplement them with other more highly nitrogenous foods. This need has served to utilize a number of by-products, as gluten, linseed, and cotton-seed meals, whose value is becoming more and more widely recognized. It has been one of the chief aims of our experiment stations, in extending the scientific principles of feeding, to develop the rational use of these foods, while numbers of farmers with their aid have largely increased their annual products.

One of the great problems which met our agricultural scientists was to arrange some way in which milk could be equitably bought and sold. As the amount of fat in pure milk may vary anywhere from less than three to over eight per cent, it is evident that the value of milk for butter-making must depend upon the amount of butter-fat that it contains. Any chemist can tell us this, but dairies and creameries can not afford to keep their chemists; so it became important to discover some method by which the amount of fat in milk could be quickly and accurately ascertained. For a number of years the attempt proved a failure, for the methods proposed were misleading. As the improved breeds of cattle became more prominent, it became more evident that great unfairness was done in paying a definite price per quart for milk without reference to its quality, and renewed and successful efforts were made by the various experiment stations to obtain some accurate chemical method which could be operated by any dairyman of ordinary intelligence. As a result of the effort, several good methods have been published within the last two years, and one or another of them has come into quite extended use. With the recent greatly increased supply of dairy products came the invariable reduction of prices, and the margin for gain has become so small that only the best cattle can be kept with profit. This fact makes the methods for the determination of the fat contents of milk unusually important, for by their use dairymen can weed out their poorer animals and by careful selection greatly enhance the value of their herds.

The improvements in the methods of extracting sugar from cane in Louisiana; the introduction of the process of "Pasteurization" of wines in California, which does away with the use of antiseptics of any kind; and many other useful results, either wholly or partly due to the experiment stations, might be detailed to advantage. None of them, however, compare with the great improvement among the American farmers themselves. The bulletins of the stations have done and are doing a good work. New facts, new theories, and new interests are daily added to the farmers' lives. A great school is open to them, of whatever age or sex, and they are learning. They are studying science upon their farms; observing insects, inquiring into the reason of blights and rusts, noticing the effect of different constituents of plant-food upon their crops; helping on their neighbors in the work; and are forming societies, and holding institutes, where they are discussing the scientific and economic problems of their lives with ever-increasing ardor and intelligence. Accustomed from their boy-hood to drudgery, from their manhood to labor through all the hours of daylight, they have made a living and, with few exceptions, nothing more. A brighter future, however, lies before them. Our unoccupied arable lands will soon be exhausted, and population is ever on the increase. The farmers will co-operate more and more with our experiment stations, will find more and more beauty in their surroundings and with increased facilities and increased knowledge will take the place which belongs to them in our government and in our nation.