Farmers’ Institutes (11/8/2019)

In the 1962 musical “The Music Man” (which is set in River City, Iowa in 1912) Harold Hill tries to convince the citizens of River City they have trouble. The “trouble” he has identified is the presence of a pool table in the community. His solution to the “trouble” is to establish a boy’ band. Hill is a con man and plans to collect money for the band instruments, then skip town.

There was also trouble in rural America during this era, but it was not a pool table. It was boring schools, antiquated farming practices, and lack of knowledge of scientific farming. Even though land-grant colleges had been established, the scant scientific knowledge was not making it out into the rural communities.

The Hatch Act of 1887 (discussed in a previous Footnote) was enacted to help remedy this troublesome situation. The Hatch Act called for the establishment of agricultural experiment stations to conduct research so there would be a scientific basis for farming. The Act also called for “… diffusing among the people of the United States useful and practical information on subjects connected with agriculture.” So how should this be done? One solution to diffusing useful and practical agriculture knowledge was the establishment of Farmers’ Institutes.

The need for Farmers’ Institutes was clearly stated in the Report of Farmers’ Institute for New York in 1909 (p. 56):

For ten years previous to holding the first institute, general agriculture had been very much depressed in the state. The lack of sufficient tillage and wasting of farm manures had gradually depleted the soil of its most readily available plant food, and crop production had fallen below a paying basis on a large number of farms. So many unprofitable cows were kept and the care and general practice of feeding was such that the average milk production per cow was about 3,000 pounds annually. Under these distressing conditions many of the brightest boys and girls were leaving the farms for the cities and towns, to secure employment which would bring a greater reward for their labor. There were, of course, exceptions but these conditions generally prevailed.

So exactly what was a Farmers’ Institute? Basically, a Farmers’ Institute was a “traveling show” of agricultural experts who traveled from community to community educating farmers about improved farming techniques. The Farmers’ Institutes were typically 1-3 days in length. Typically, the Farmer’s Institutes were sponsored by land-grant colleges, state departments of agriculture, or state agricultural societies. The structure and implementation of the Farmers’ Institutes varied state by state.

A typical Farmers Institute had agricultural topics during the day but the night programs were often cultural, entertainment, or topics of general interest to the community such as rural schools or roads. There were often topics for women during the day, as a Farmer’s Institute topic or in a concurrent Womens’ Institute.

Following is a sampling of presentations made at Farmers’ and Womens’ Institutes in North Carolina in 1914. The number in parentheses is the number of presentations given during the year.:

Topic Speaker
Corn Culture T. E. Browne, Extension Specialist, NC A&M College (5)
Soil Building J. L. Burgess, NC Department of Agriculture (9)
The Value of Birds J. W. Cheshire, NC Audubon Society (35)
Soil Improvement with Livestock A. L. French, Farmer (26)
Forest Protection J. S. Homes, State Forester (20)
Plant Diseases H, C, Young, Instructor, North Carolina A&M College (14)
Pecan Growing W. N. Hutt, State Horticulturist (2)
What to Do Till the Doctor Comes Mrs. W. N. Hutt (30)
Diversified Farming R. W. Scott, Farmer (25)
Dairying A. J. Reed, Dairy Specialist, USDA (14)
Apple Culture S. B. Shaw, NC Department of Agriculture (6)
Bread Making Miss Beulah Arey (12)
Care of Infants Mrs. W. R. Hollowell (53)
Curing of Meat Mrs. J. W. Robinson (27)
Fireless Cooking Miss Lucie Webb (53)
Making Pin Money Miss Laura Carroll (21)

The two images below (front and back) comprise a mailed advertisement and the program for a Farmer’s Institute that occurred in Preston Hollow, NY in 1907. One side of the document is for mailing purposes along with the front page of the program. Once the mailing is opened the program for the day is outlined. Notice that the institute is free and a question box is used (so people could submit questions without being embarrassed).

The speakers for the Farmers Institutes were typically college faculty, experiment station staff, state department of agriculture staff, prominent farmers, and even local farmers. Some of the more notable Institute speakers were in demand in several states. T. B. Terry and John Gould, both of Ohio, lectured in their home state, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Louisiana and elsewhere (Scott, 1971).

There were differences of opinions as to who made the best Institute lecturers. Some believed (Scott, 1971, p. 97) “…only trained scientists could provide the type of information that farmers needed, although they recognized that success in the laboratory or classroom did not insure success on the lecture platform.” Others maintained that (Scott, 1971, p. 98) “…most farmers had a deep suspicion of scientists and that few trained men could speak in a manner intelligible to farmers.” One person thought “the academic man was a wet blanket and after he spoke there would not be enough left of the audience to pronounce a benediction on.” Often there was a preference for the well-known farmer.

Farmers were often suspicious that some Institute speakers (Scott, 1971, p. 100) “…had some kind of livestock or machinery to sell or some political doctrine to teach.” The 1912-13 Farmers Institute report from Michigan emphasized (p. 8) “One of the first rules in the selection of speakers and topics for farmers’ institute is that nothing which savors of advertising shall be allowed upon the institute programs, hence great care was exercised in making the selections.”

Farmers’ Institutes experienced growing pains in the early years but gained in popularity as time went on. In 1903 Congress appropriated $5,000 to support Farmers’ Institute work. This funding was used to hire a Farmer’s Institute Specialist, John Hamilton, who worked with A. C. True in the USDA. Hamilton’s duties were (Hamilton,1903, p. 636):

…to investigate and report upon the organization and progress of farmers’ institutes in the several states and territories and upon similar organizations in foreign countries, with special suggestions of plans and methods for making such organizations more effective for the dissemination of the results of the work of the Department of Agriculture and the experiment stations, and of improved methods of agricultural practice.

In 1913, Hamilton gave a status report of the growth of the Farmers’ Institute. He wrote (Hamilton, 1913, P. 3):

The growth of the farmers’ institute movement in the United States during the last 10 years is noteworthy. In the season of 1902–3 there were held 9,570 sessions of institutes in 41 States. In 1912–13 there were held 20,640 sessions, an increase of 115 per cent. The attendance in 1902–3 was 904,654; in 1912–13 it was 2,897,391 at the regular institutes, and at the special institutes 1,002,617; an increase at the regular institutes of 220 per cent and in all forms of institutes 331 per cent. The average attendance at each session increased 49 per cent, or from 94.53 to 141.

The following table from a North Carolina Farmers’ Institute report shows typical attendance patterns. This is fairly typical of most states.

There was an organization of Farmer’s Institute personnel. It was the American Association of Farmers’ Institute Workers. The group held annual meetings to discuss issues and share ideas.

In many states, there would be a statewide “Farmer’s Convention or Institute Roundup” once a year. This was typically held on a college campus and featured a variety of speakers and activities.

After the Smith-Lever Act was passed in 1914 (this act established the Cooperative Extension Service) there was a decline in Institutes (Moss & Lass, 1988). The county agents basically replaced the Farmers Institutes. If farmers or homemakers needed advice, they just called on the county agent. However, in some states, Farmers Institutes continued to flourish. The following page from the 1932 Delaware County (Indiana) Farmers Institute bulletin shows that Farmers’ Institutes continued to thrive, at least in Indiana.

Concluding Remarks

The Farmers’ Institutes played an important role in improving agriculture in rural America. Not only did it provide “useful and practical information on subjects connected with agriculture” it also provided information on home economics and sponsored a variety of activities such as corn growing contests for young people. The night programs often focused on the need to include agriculture in the rural school curriculum.

I consider Farmer’s Institutes to be the grandparents of agricultural education. They were the first to sponsor corn clubs (next week’s Friday Footnote) which then led to the inclusion of corn clubs in schools which led to the establishment of agricultural education.

Teaching Ideas

Have your students go to the web site and search for Farmer’s Institutes (to narrow the search they might include the name of the state). See if they can locate an annual report for your state or a neighboring state. Typically, the reports tell where Institutes were held and when, identifies the speakers, include the programs, and often reproduces the talks of the speakers. Have your students:

  1. Identify and report on Institutes that might have been conducted in your county. It would really be interesting to see if there were local newspaper accounts of the Institute.
  2. Identify a speaker they would like to hear and tell why.
  3. Create a program for a modern-day Institute.


Hamilton, John (1903). Farmers Institutes in the United States. Washington: Government Printing Office.

Hamilton, John (1914). Farmers’ Institutes and Agricultural Extension Work in the United States in 1913. Bulletin of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, No. 83.

Michigan State Farmer’s Institutes, 1912-13. State Board of Agriculture.

Moss, J. & Lass, C. (1988). A History of Farmers’ Institutes. Agricultural History. Vol. 62, No. 2.

Report of Farmer’s Institutes (1909). State of New York. Department of Agriculture.

Scott, R. V. (1971). The Reluctant Farmer: Rise of Agricultural Extension to 1914. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.