NDSU man helped make ‘Breadbasket of America’

Farm Forum

Perhaps the person most responsible for making the upper Great Plains the “Breadbasket of America” was a former professor at the North Dakota Agricultural College, now NDSU.

Willet M. Hays not only discovered and propagated superior varieties of almost all the cereal grains grown in the Great Plains, but he also alerted farmers to better methods to increase their yields.

Hays applied the latest advancements in science to assist farmers in their quest to improve agricultural productivity. Besides his teaching load at NDAC, he also became the first superintendent of the college’s experiment station, where he conducted studies on the cereal grains and grasses grown in North Dakota.

After three years of teaching and assisting in the running of the experiment station at the University of Minnesota, Hays accepted a similar position at NDAC in 1891. He had studied the work of Charles Darwin and Asa Gray and was a pioneer in applying the scientific approach to crop breeding. He brought that knowledge with him to Minnesota and North Dakota.

Following the death of his wife in Grand Forks in 1893, Hays resigned from his position at NDAC and returned to teach and serve as vice-chairman of the experiment station at the University of Minnesota. He remained there until 1904, when he was appointed assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

While at Minnesota, the varieties of seeds that Hays developed played a significant role in an increase in crop production. For countless farmers, it was the difference between making a profit or having their farms foreclosed. Hays was meticulous and consistent in his methods, going to far as to develop a machine that planted each seed at exactly the same depth.

Between 1893 and 1904, Hays produced superior varieties of corn, wheat, flax, barley, oats, alfalfa and timothy grass. His Primrose flax plants grew, on average, seven inches taller than existing breeds. Hays’ corn variety, “Minn 13,” was much more hardier than any existing corn and allowed for planting of corn by 50 miles further north. Largely because of Minn 13, the amount of corn grown in North Dakota and Minnesota increased five times between 1893 and 1930.

Bolton’s Blue Stem wheat, that Hays developed, yielded the highest value per acre in 1894. His Haynes’ Blue Stem wheat was the yield leader in 1897 and 1898. Hays achieved his greatest success with the development of a non-cereal seed. Grimm alfalfa, a staple for cattle feed, became the fourth largest U.S. crop.

Believing that even greater strides could be made in agriculture if plant and animal scientists worked cooperatively, Hays founded the American Breeders’ Association in 1903. This organization exists today as the American Genetic Association. One of the people who assisted Hays in creating the AGA was James Wilson, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. Wilson was so impressed with Hays that he appointed him as his assistant secretary in December 1904.

As assistant secretary, Hays introduced the agricultural research system that later was extended to state experiment stations. He helped draft the Doliver-Davis Bill, which advocated teaching agriculture and home economics in rural schools. The bill failed because it was opposed by educators who feared that it would create a separate track of vocational education. Hays later saw the implementation of the bill enacted through the passage of the Smith-Lever Act.

In 1907, Hays worked on the Nelson Amendment, which increased appropriations to land-grant institutions.He later helped organize the U. S. Bureau of Public Roads and Rural Engineering, an agency that greatly improved the infrastructure of rural America. Hays also co-authored the Smith-Hughes Act, which provided funding for teaching vocational education in rural public schools.

With the election of Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, in 1912, Hays’ work with the U.S. Agriculture Department was over. He then drafted the protocol for the New International Institute of Agriculture, and it became the forerunner of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. With that completed, Hays was asked to go to Argentina to act as adviser to the Minister of Agriculture. On his return to the U.S, he set sail on a British ship that was captured by a German cruiser. After being held prisoner, Hays was released.

Because of deteriorating health, Hays moved to a farm in Pennsylvania in 1915 then retired to his retained Iowa family farm. Hays died on January 15, 1927. He and his accomplishments were remembered during World War II when a liberty/cargo ship was named the U.S. Willet M. Hayes.

For a man who spent much of his life looking for the best parent seeds to produce the best offspring, he must have also possessed good seed. One of his sons, Silas Hays, served as surgeon general for the U. S. Army from 1955 to 1959. A granddaughter, Ruth Bascom, was elected the first female mayor of Eugene, Ore., in 1993.