South Dakota agricultural education and FFA history

By Clark W. Hanson
Professor Emeritus, Agricultural Education, SDSU

Author’s Note: To commemorate the passage of the Smith Hughes Act of 1917, I have decided to write a historical summary of events that have occurred in the South Dakota Agricultural Education program. Over the next 18 months to two years, I plan to submit a series of articles for the Green Sheet as a means of sharing how the South Dakota program originated and developed over the past 100 years.

Before America was settled, the European agricultural culture had developed some degree of transferring agricultural skills and practices from one generation to another.

At the start of the 1600’s the United States society consisted of three classes of citizens; the gentry (higher level), the middle class was made up of farmers and skilled craft workers, and the third group composed of farmhands, slaves and indentured servants. The indentured servants worked for up to 7 years. When their tenure was up, they got a set of clothes, tools and 50 acres of land. The slaves continued as slaves, and farmhands eventually struck out on their own.

Previous to this time, apprenticeship programs for young men existed in Europe and in particular England. The concept had been around for years but the programs had matured and acquired structure including what should be taught and supervision of apprentices. There were ample opportunities to abuse young trainees. The extent of internship development was primarily in the area of trade and industrial occupations. Opportunities for women were limited to domestic sciences. In the rural areas women milked the cows and during harvest worked in the fields.

While the apprenticeship program had become a legitimate educational tool for society, training in agriculture was not as refined. The time-honored tradition in production agriculture of sons working with Dad and daughters working with Mother had been in existence forever. It never acquired the structure as in the trade and industrial occupations.

The early settlers assumed a very structured approach to education. The Massachusetts Bay Colony required parents to teach their children “to read and understand the principles of religion.” The Assembly voted to require elementary school in towns of at least 50 families and grammar school in towns of at least 100 families. Thus, the first regulation that schools would be required for the youth of that area. A tax was assessed to support the schools. Sound familiar?

In 1694, “the first neat cattle” arrived in the Colonies, followed by the importation of Spanish Merino sheep into Massachusetts, which were subsequently placed on display. The display led to bigger things, and thus stock shows were established in the New World.

Thomas Jefferson’s “Notes on the State of Virginia” contains one of the finest detailed descriptions of agriculture in an American state and asserts the virtues of rural life. In Philadelphia, on March 1, 1785, a society to promote agriculture was organized, and later Benjamin Franklin and George Washington were elected members. An organization, of similar nature, created in South Carolina suggested establishing, of all things, an experimental farm.

Also in, 1785, the South Carolina Society for Promoting and Improving Agriculture and Other Rural Concerns was organized and later incorporated in 1795 as the Agricultural Society of South Carolina. In 1796 Dr. John de le Howe donated a large portion of his property to the Society for the purpose of “establishing an agricultural school for poor boys and girls, at which manual labor was to be combined with instruction in sciences related to agriculture.” The school was turned over to the State of South Carolina.

In the 1790’s the cradle and scythe were introduced, and the cotton gin was invented in 1793.

On January 21, 1794, the Philadelphia Society for the Promotion of Agriculture appointed a committee, “to prepare a plan for establishing the State society for the promotion of agriculture, connecting with it the education of youth in the knowledge of that most important art.” The committee included passing legislation to combine the “subject of agriculture with others parts of education.” Thus, the start of less-than-college level agricultural education. The federal phase of the suggested legislation did not occur until 123 years later.

During the late 1790s agricultural fairs were organized after “quality” livestock were imported from England. Agricultural societies were organized in a number of locations, distributed bulletins and frequently sponsored fairs and exhibitions, which resulted in a format for educating farmers.

In 1809, the States of Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia formed the

Columbian Agricultural Society which had as its primary purpose the education of farmers.

Over the years, other states formed agricultural societies including: New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut.

The next article will include events leading up to and the passage of the Land Gant Act of 1862.

In assembling this article, information on content and dates was secured from the following historical publications:

• True, Alfred Charles, “A History of Agricultural Education in the United States/ 1785-1925.”

• Rufus W. Stimson and Frank W. Lathrop, “History of agricultural education of less than college grade in the United States.”

• History of Indentured servants, Brown Paper School US Kids History: Book of the American Colonies.