The Jewish Agricultural Society (06/12/2020)

Agricultural Societies have existed in America since the 1700s. These societies promoted advancements in agriculture and advocated for agricultural and extension education. In the future, several Friday Footnotes will focus on some of the more notable agricultural societies. We will start that exploration by looking at a unique and valuable agricultural society – the Jewish Agricultural Society.

Most people are not accustomed to seeing the words Jew and Agriculture in the same sentence. We tend to think of Jews as being merchants and living in places like New York City. However, after reading this Friday Footnote, you might think differently.

The Jewish Agricultural Society (JAS) was chartered in New York in 1900. Its original purpose was to provide agricultural training “as free farmers on their own soil” to Jewish immigrants coming to America from Europe. In the late 1800s (and even today) Jews in Europe were being persecuted and were often killed for one reason – that reason being they were Jews. To escape the persecution, the Jews who could, emigrated from Europe to other countries including America.

The Jewish Agricultural Society was created by the Baron de Hirsch Fund. In 1891 this fund was established in the United States by a wealthy financier and philanthropist in Germany who dedicated his fortune to the welfare of East European Jews who were being oppressed (persecuted and killed) in Russia. He gave $2,400,000 (which was a great fortune in 1891) to establish the fund. The fund was responsible for many good works including the creation and operation of the Jewish Agricultural Society and the Baron de Hirsch Agricultural High School.

Figure 1. Baron De Hirsch. German Businessman and Philanthropist.
Wood Engraving, 1896.

When the Jewish Agricultural Society was created in 1900 there were about 200 Jewish farm families in the United States. By 1933 there were over 100,000 Jews who derived their livelihood, in whole or part, from the farm. Jewish farmers were found in every state of the Union by 1933 (Jewish Daily Bulletin, 1933). The Society was a major factor contributing to these numbers.

In a 1943 brochure about the Jewish Agricultural Society, its purpose is stated as “…to encourage and advance farming by Jews in the United States.” An early shift from group colonization to assisting individual enterprise became the basis of most of the society’s operations.

Between 1900 and 1908 the JAS focused on helping Jewish immigrants find farms and provided loans to help them get started. Between 1908 and 1920 numerous additional initiatives were launched to help Jewish farmers. In 1920 the Society reorganized into five distinct departments to better focus their activities. Instead of providing information by eras, the best way to communicate the activities of the JAS is to describe the activities using the five departments as organizers even though a number of the activities described occurred before the departments were created. The Departments were (Jewish Agricultural Society, 1943):

  • Department of Farm Settlement
  • Farm Loan Department
  • Department of Agricultural Education and Extension
  • Farm Employment Department
  • Department of Rural Sanitation

Department of Farm Settlement – This department could be labeled the Realities of Farming Department. It was created in 1913 but continued the earlier work of the JAS. Many immigrants had grandiose, unrealistic views of farming. The staff met with people who were interested in farming and educated them about the realities of farming. During the depression of the 1930s many out-of-work Jews “thought” they wanted to be farmers and the Department of Farm Settlement provided them with valuable counsel.

Gabriel Davidson, the Director of the Jewish Agricultural Society, reported (1923, p. 169):

“Within the last three years 4,139 farm seekers turned to this Department for guidance and 371 bought farms. That number may sound small, but the task required the expert examination of 1310 farms in the East and Middle West. Were the Society to yield heedlessly to the natural impulses of gratifying the ambitions of all those who apply, its annual roster of new farmers would be much more imposing, but the toll of failure, I fear, would be too great. Indeed, as can be seen from the figures just given, no small part of the work of this Department is to dissuade those palpably unfit from entering upon a business which would bring then no profit and the cause the no benefit. While this may be work of a negative character, it is the only rational method of building up a farm movement.

After identifying those who could be successful farmers, the Department then helped these future farmers find a good farm at a fair price. The Society recognized that, in large part, success or failure in farming was attributable to the kind of farm the newcomer originally settled on. Therefore, the Society examined farms for prospective farmers to determine whether they were worth the price and tried to save buyers from being exploited by unscrupulous real estate agents. The newly arrived immigrants who formed the bulk of the Society’s clients were often victims of such agents. Davidson (1923) reported that many a crooked deal was nipped in the bud by his staff.

After learning about the realities of farm life, many changed their minds. However, those who persisted and bought a farm tended to stay in farming. Between 85 and 90% of the people who started farming with the help of the JAS remained in farming

Farm Loan Department – One of the major activities of the JAS was to make loans to Jewish farmers to help them get established. Between 1900 and 1953 loans to Jewish farmers in 41 states exceeded $13,000,000. The farmers had to pay the loans back over time with interest. Thus, the fund kept replenishing.

In 1911 the JAS established three credit unions. This number grew to 19 by 1915 and were found in New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts.

When the U.S. government passed the Federal Land Bank Act in 1914 (but it was not fully implemented until 1917) , the General Manager of the Jewish Agricultural Society helped draft the legislation and later resigned to become the first president of the Federal Land Bank in Springfield, Massachusetts.

In 1912 the Society helped organize a fire insurance company for the Jewish farmers in the Catskill area of New York.

As the persecution of Jews in Germany became severe in the late 1930s, the JAS was a lifeline for those being persecuted. In 1931 11 refugees from Hitler’s persecution applied to the JAS for loans. In 1938 600 immigrants from Germany and Austria applied for loans. The number increased to 741 in 1940.

Department of Agricultural Education and Extension -The first issue of a magazine, The Jewish Farmer, appeared in May of 1908. It was the first Yiddish agricultural magazine in the world. According to Davidson (1943, p. 37) “The aim of this little paper is to provide for the non-English reading Jewish farmer expert advice on agricultural subjects not otherwise available; to supply him with a publication to which he can turn for sympathy and encouragement; to furnish him with a medium of expression of his feelings and aspirations; to bring him inspiration by keeping him in touch with his fellow tillers of the soil” It should be noted the American magazines about agriculture and the USDA bulletins were in English, which the Jewish farmers could not read.

Figure 2. The Front Cover of the Jewish Farmer Magazine, 1912

The magazine was well received and some of the articles were republished in other languages. The article “Ten Commandments for Prospective Farmers” was reprinted in over 100 papers and in four languages. An English page was later added to the magazine for the farm boys and girls who could not read Yiddish. As time went by more pages were added for the English reading farmers. Davidson (1943, p. 40) reports “The Jewish Farmer led naturally and almost immediately to another phase of agricultural education – a system of field instruction.” So, the Jewish Agricultural Society established an extension service. The JAS extension efforts preceded the 1914 Smith-Lever Act by several years.

Davidson (1943, 40-41) described the extension efforts thusly:

By means of its farm to farm visits, the Society has been able to bring last minute information, directly to the farmer’s door. These traveling teachers, picked for their specialized scientific training, their pedagogic ability, their temperamental fitness and their Jewish background, have been able to do more than impart technical knowledge. Going from farm to farm, seeing the farmer’s problems, pointing out mistakes, suggesting improvements, speaking to boys and girls, listening to farmer’s hopes and fears, they soon built up a relationship much closer than that of teacher to pupil.

From individual instruction, the next logical step was group instruction. Farmers would assemble to discuss problems common to their group.

In the true sense of extension work, detailed records were kept. In 1922 1,670 farm visits were made, 134 meetings were conducted with an attendance of 7,260 people, 54 projects and demonstrations were conducted, 1,450 callers at the extension offices were advised, and 3,895 inquiries were answered by mail (Davidson, 1923). The work of the JAS extension agents complemented the work of the Cooperative Extension Service after it was established. Between 1951 and 1953 the JAS Extension agents averaged around 4,500 farm visits a year.

Out of the extension meetings, Jewish farmer organizations emerged. In 1909 delegates from thirteen local Jewish farmers’ organizations met in New York City and created the “Federation of Jewish Famers of America.”

At the organization meeting of the Jewish Farmers of America it was decided to hold the first convention and agricultural fair in October of 1909 in New York City. The fair was to be held during Succoth Week (a Jewish harvest festival).

Figure 3. The program for the first Federation of Jewish Farmers of America convention

At the fair and convention there were 952 fair entries from 225 exhibitors. Even distant North Dakota was represented.  The fair was visited by at least 50,000 people. One review of the fair stated (Davidson, 1943, p. 43), “The fair demonstrated that the Jew’s entrance into the agricultural field has been marked by signal success.”

Figure 4. The front and back of a medal awarded at the Jewish Farmers of America fair.

The Federation grew to include 63 local Jewish agricultural societies in 11 states. In 1910 the Federation established a purchasing bureau (similar to a farm coop). Later, in the 1930s, the JAS worked with other farm groups in New Jersey, New York and Connecticut to establish farm cooperatives. The Inter-County Feed Cooperative of Woodridge, N. Y., the Central Connecticut Cooperative (it operated until 2016), and the Central Jersey Farmers Feed Cooperative of Hightstown were all started because of this effort.

One activity of the JAS was to conduct winter evening classes in farming in New York City These classes were conducted for at least three decades. The classes attracted a high attendance and there were lively discussions. In the spring, a trip was arranged to permit the students to visit farms near New York City.

In 1920 a branch office of the Jewish Agricultural Society was established in Ellenville, NY because of the large number of Jewish farmers in the area (there were also branch offices in Vineland, NJ, Chicago, IL and later in Los Angeles). The Ellenville office was a center for all types of social and cultural activity, as its staff helped organize religious schools and Americanization classes. During World War II the Ellenville JAS office supervised the Farm Cadet training program described in the March 27, 2020 Friday Footnote

The Society established a refugee training farm near Bound Brook, New Jersey in 1940. By the end of 1942 they had trained over 300 people to be farmers (144 bought farms and 18 others took jobs as farm workers). With Jewish immigration to America disrupted by World War II this farm was then used by the New York City Board of Education to train high school boys for farm work – again the Farm Cadet program.

Funds from the Baron de Hirsch fund was used to establish a Jewish agricultural high school in New Jersey – the Baron De Hirsch Agricultural School. It will be featured in next week’s Friday Footnote.

Farm Employment Department – Originally known as the Farm Labor Bureau, this department was started in 1908. This was basically a placement service. Between 1908 and 1922 it had made 14,446 placements. It helped farmers find labor, but one might consider this an apprentice program. Davidson, in an address to the American Country Life Association in 1923 stated (p. 170) “The aim of the Department is primarily educational, to give earnest, willing young men the opportunity of acquiring a practical agricultural training so as to fit them to become farm owners, or to command the better paying positions as farm workers.” People who thought they might want to be farmers had the opportunity to live and work on a farm to see what it was like. Some, but not a lot of individuals, placed on farms through this department, eventually bought their own farms.

Department of Rural Sanitation –Numerous Jewish farmers in the Catskill region of New York ran boarding houses for tourists to supplement their income. While their sanitation practices were like their neighbors, they needed to be better. The Department worked with municipal, state, and federal authorities to improve rural sanitation practices. The work of the Department spread to Jewish farmers in other neighboring states. As sanitation practices improved, there was no longer a need for this Department which was eliminated in 1950.

Final Thoughts

After World War II hundreds of Jews displaced by the war applied for loans from the Jewish Agricultural Society and entered farming. These immigrants settled near Danielson, CT, Los Angeles & Petaluma, CA and Vineland, NJ, and the Catskills in NY. They often entered poultry, dairy, and truck crop farming.

The Jewish Agricultural Society is an important, but virtually unknown, part of the history of agricultural and extension education in America. A fitting conclusion to this Footnote comes from the 1954 book, Jews in American Agriculture: The History of Farming by Jews in the United States (p. 9-10):

One reason for the success of Jews on the farm may well be their very inexperience. They are free from the conservative attitudes which influence old line farmers and are also inclined to be more daring in turning to new methods, improved techniques, and the adoption of the latest machinery. The Jew’s business experience, his willingness to live frugally, due to past necessity, also was important. Another and special factor which has contributed to the success of the Jews on the farm in this country has been The Jewish Agricultural Society, and before the Society its parent organization, the Baron de Hirsch Fund, which together have assisted Jewish farmers by means of loans and through educational activities for the last sixty-three years.

Because of changing times (and changes in the structure of agriculture) the Jewish Agricultural Society was disbanded in 1972 and its surviving projects were once again incorporated into the larger mission of the Baron de Hirsch Fund.

A new group emerged about four years ago – the Jewish Farmer Network. Check it out.


Davidson, Gabriel (1923). The Jewish Farmer in the United States. In The Rural Home – Proceedings of the Conference of the Sixth National Country Life Conference. The University of Chicago Press.

Davidson, Gabriel (1943). Our Jewish farmers and the Story of the Jewish Agricultural Society. New York: L. B. Fischer.

Jewish Agricultural Society. (1954). Jews in American Agriculture: The History of Farming by Jews in the United States. New York.

Jewish Daily Bulletin, Feb. 2, 1933.

The Jewish Agricultural Society, Inc. (1943). The Jewish Agricultural Society Its Aims and Activities. CUNY Academic Works.