South Dakota agricultural education and FFA history: 100 Years of South Dakota agriculture classes

Clark W. Hanson
Professor Emeritus, Agricultural Education, SDSU

What do the National Football League, A&W root beer and South Dakota agricultural education have in common? The three share a common birthday or at the least a close starting date.

Advertisements for Sunday P.M. Fall entertainment and A&W root beer provide a bench mark for grasping the age of high school programs near and dear to a number of rural communities. It was also the year in which South Dakota native Edgar McFadden got out of the Army was employment by USDA and stationed at the Highmore Research Station. McFadden was the noted plant breeder who developed the stem rust resistant wheat variety named Hope.

Fall 2019 was the 100th anniversary of the beginning of vocational agriculture programs in South Dakota sponsored in part by the federal government. However, there is ample evidence that 11 local South Dakota high schools were offering some high school agriculture classes prior to 1919. Wessington Springs was one of those schools. The instructor was the great uncle of Craig Shryock, the current instructor at Wessington Springs High School.

Following the passage of the Smith-Hughes Act in 1917, states electing to participate were required to establish state boards of vocational education for the purpose of administering federal vocational education programs. In South Dakota, the state Board of Education assumed the duties of the state Board of Vocational Education. The Vocational Board determined the course of study, how schools were to be selected and the distribution of the federal vocational education funds.

The first school to be approved to offer vocational agriculture was Ravinia Consolidated School. On Janu. 29, 1919, the board approved Viborg, Wessington Springs, Brookings, Huron and Watertown to initiated programs. Later, the board approved Clear Lake, Madison, Belle Fourche, Woonsocket, Mount Vernon and Salem. The dates for starting classes are a bit unclear.

What would Joe Knutson, a 1920 incoming high school freshman, think when he heard that his local high school had added vocational agriculture to the curriculum. Back then, can you imagine what was going through the freshman’s mind? What would the class be like? He had heard that a portion of the curriculum would include instruction in crops, livestock and shop.

Was the teacher certified? Doubtful! There was a shortage of teachers, which sounds familiar. Did the teacher have an agricultural background? We don’t know for sure. However, some may have been trained as science teachers, particularly biology.

C.D. Jarvis, a specialist in agricultural education with the U.S Bureau of Education, reported in Bulletin, 1921, No. 40, entitled “Agricultural Education,” that 283 future teachers graduated from 38 agricultural colleges, which hosted “special teacher-training curricula or majors.” Jarvis also reported an anticipated shortage of 465 agriculture teachers for the 1920-21 school year.

College classes in teacher education and agriculture were available. Was the program under the direction of a state board? Yes. What will the classroom look like? Tables and chairs rather than desks? Will there have a shop? It is doubtful that a suitable shop facility could have been constructed in such a short time frame. Will there be textbooks? Your author recently located a textbook for high school students published in 1918: Farm Science-A Foundation Textbook on Agriculture, written by W.J. Spellman, published by World Book Co.

In the book’s preface, the author describes the nature of the experiments listed at the end of each chapter. The experiments did not require “apparatus” and the necessary materials were generally available on the farm.

Educational references for teachers? This is a strong possibility as such publications had been available for over a 100 years. The Better Farming Association, copyright 1915, published one such document available to teachers, Farm Economy Twelve Courses in Agriculture. Your author has a copy of the 1921 edition. The reference is rather lengthy, consisting of 1,247 pages, with only one chapter devoted to livestock.

The state of Missouri developed a four-year plan for teaching vocational agriculture:

  • Teach growing things was suggested for the first year: Farm crops, how seeds grow, depth to plant, corn, oats, alfalfa, weeds, gardens and canning drying.
  • The second year, teach making things: Making a nail box, wash bench, bookrack, rope knots, splicing rope, cement tanks, steps, posts, farm tools, machines, removing strains and sewing.
  • For the third year of the curriculum, teach live things: Animal diseases and remedies, how to feed, testing milk, poultry, useful birds, insect pests, setting the table and hot lunch.
  • Teach soil and home the fourth year: Soil fertility, cultivation, moisture, sanitation, beautifying the home, social and community work.

International Harvester Co. promoted such a four-year curriculum. On April 19, 1917, the company sponsored a full-page advertisement entitle, “How to Vitalize The Teaching of Agriculture in the Rural Schools,” as published in the Journal of Education, New England and National.

The high school curriculum continued to evolve. Comments from the Sixth Annual Report to Congress ... Federal Board for Vocational Education encouraged teachers to “look ... to the communities in which they are teaching for a determination of the content of courses ... than to some cut-and-dried outline prepared by some state official or to outlines such as may be found in textbooks.” In a five-year period of time, 1918-22, the local high school vocational agriculture curriculum “is marked by the fact that a majority of states are now adapting courses to local conditions.”

Would there be an Agriculture Club? Not sure, although clubs were known to have excited for some time. The original clubs may well have been a type of 4-H club, as the FFA wasn’t established until 10 years later. What about judging contests? Considered to be more than likely, as South Dakota State College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts started hosting such events during that period of time.

Would the program last? What about sustainability? Reports indicate that at the end of the 1919-1920 school, 31,301 students were enrolled nationwide, with 1,570 instructors employed. At the end of Knutson’s junior year, 1921-22, 60,236 students were enrolled, with 2,290 instructors.

Professor E.D.Stivers, South Dakota College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts, was selected to be the first director of vocational agriculture and instructed by the state board to develop a course of study. Agriculture was becoming more mechanized, with maintenance and repairs becoming a fact of life. M.A. Sharp served as the first full-time vocational agriculture supervisor effective August 1921. Sharp developed shop courses for high school programs during his tenure. A two-week shop work class was designed for secondary vocational agriculture and offered at State College.

To acquire a better picture of what the incoming high school freshmen were viewing, one only needs to take a look at what was occurring in education at the national level. Major changes had been occurring in education since the consideration and passage of the Land Grant Act, which established “training colleges” in each state or states upon entering the union. The background for this movement was a perceived need on the part of the society that science was going to be a key component for the future development of the country. The establishment of experiment stations and development of the Extension Service completed the post high school component of education in agriculture for adults and the establishment of 4-H.

Discussions continued as to the need to establish educational programs for delivery at the high school level. Not only was the proposed curriculum unheard of, but also introduced alternative methods of classroom instruction. Educational pioneers John Dewey and Charles Processor proposed teaching methods involving hands-on instruction. The concept was a major shift from teaching the classics.

Also at this time, the agricultural teaching profession was just getting started. Teacher education programs were started across the country to provide a supply of teachers possessing the academics of agriculture and educational philosophies. In 1920, Brookings High School was designated as the first school for student teaching in vocational agriculture. C.R. Wiseman served as the South Dakota state head of agricultural education in 1920.

Due to the fact that high school vocational agriculture classes were new, it took a period of time for the agricultural education profession to develop. Classroom vocational agriculture teachers, agricultural education teacher education programs with degree-offering capacities and state and regional supervisors would ultimately design the final high school curriculum. These composites of ingredients eventually lead to development of a professional journal entitled Agricultural Education. Journal articles encouraged the exchange of teaching techniques, curriculum development and implementation of the Future Farmers of America at the local, state and national levels. The first issue of the Agricultural Education journal was published in January 1929.

Editor's note: To commemorate the passage of the Smith Hughes Act of 1917, Dr. Hanson has written a historical summary of events that occurred in the South Dakota Agricultural Education program. Over a two-year time frame a series of articles will share how the South Dakota program originated and developed the past 100 years.