Agriculture & University of Wisconsin

Wisconsin is an agricultural state. That would seem obvious to all who travel throughout the state. What may not be obvious to many is the University of Wisconsin’s (UW) contributions to the state’s agricultural standing. It may also not be obvious to all that UW’s roots are in agriculture.

Reuben Gold Thwaites, a historian and superintendent of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin from 1887-1913, wrote a fascinating History of the University of Wisconsin published in 1900. The detail of his work is astounding. I’ve waded through much of it and will draw from it throughout.

I have been impressed by the foresight of politicians, office-holders, scientists, and those engaged in agriculture in the fields. They have joined together to build and enhance Wisconsin’s stature and competitiveness in the agricultural industry. Today it is a $104 billion industry.

When we think of agriculture in Wisconsin, I suspect many of us think of dairy cows, corn, and soybeans. The industry in the state is much more than that. Dr. Apps, professor emeritus for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at UW, reminds us in his book, Wisconsin Agriculture,

“Wisconsin produces much more than cows, milk and cheese, though those remain vital to its economy and identity. In fact, Wisconsin is one of the most diverse farming states in the nation.”

UW and the people in agriculture who have been served by it have been instrumental in achieving such farming diversity. That’s what this story is all about.

I want to develop a perspective of how agriculture in Wisconsin married up with the University of Wisconsin. But first, let’s take a quick and rudimentary snapshot of early economic phases experienced in the region. I want two make a point with this snapshot.

I’ll not go back thousands of years, but if I did, I would tell you that Native Americans lived off the land, farming, hunting, and gathering, raising corn, beans, and squash, their favorites at the time. (Wisconsin Department of Health Services)

Albert Hart Sanford, a teacher and historian from Platteville, has commented that “Indian agriculture was the starting point from which English settlers in America made their successful beginning; thus, it became, to a larger extent than usually thought, the basis of our agriculture.”

French explorers arrived in the region now known as Wisconsin in the 17th century. Farming was not on their “to-do” list when it came to their livelihood. Fur trading commanded their attention for some two hundred years after their arrival. But there was a point at which they ran out of fur-bearing animals. Profeessor Apps has noted,

“By the 1830s and 1840s, fur trading in Wisconsin was in decline.”

The southwestern region of present-day Wisconsin experienced a boom in lead mining during the first decades of the 19th century. That boom also ran its course. Demand declined, and new opportunities emerged elsewhere. (Apps)

Logging and lumber grew by leaps and bounds. Forests were abundant in Wisconsin, especially in northern Wisconsin. The region’s rivers offered the means to move the logs. Then railroads opened up to carry the loads to market. The Wisconsin Historical Society commented,

“By the late 19th century, Wisconsin was one of the premier lumber-producing states in the U.S.”

Logging remained a dynamite industry into the 20th century. By 1910 it too began to decline. Loggers cut down the trees faster than the trees grew. The loggers moved westward. Programs were invented to plant new trees, but the industry, in the main, had already moved out.  (Logging in Wisconsin)

It is true that people had to eat, so throughout, they did have small gardens and farms to sustain workers and their families. (Apps)

It strikes me that each of the economic pursuits mentioned, fur trading, lead mining, and logging, to name the most popular, faded away in large part because each became too much of a good thing, In the vernacular, they wore themselves out and receded in importance.

Keep this point in mind as we turn our attention to agriculture.

Let’s now turn to the political evolution of our state.

I’ll start with the Treaty of Paris of 1783, which officially ended the American Revolution. The British ceded what was called the Northwest Territory to the U.S. as a result. It was a large hunk of land west of Pennsylvania, northwest of the Ohio River, and east of the Mississippi below the Great Lakes. It was a vast wilderness inhabited mostly by Native Americans.

The government of the Northwest Territory passed an Ordinance of 1787 which, among other things, placed considerable emphasis on education, asserting “the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” (Thwaite)

Thwaite wrote,

“No doubt the policy of establishing and endowing Territorial and State colleges in the Northwest, as a ‘means of education,’ was clearly in the minds of the congressmen who passed the Ordinance.”

He noted that statesmen of this period also knew about grants made to Harvard and other colleges in the East during the colonial period. Keep that in mind.

The U.S. Congress took out a chunk of this Northwest Territory of wilderness and created the Wisconsin Territory in 1836. It included the present-day states of Minnesota, Iowa, and part of the Dakotas. Belmont was the territory’s capital. It was well-positioned to serve the Territory of Wisconsin and was in the heart of the territory’s lead mining region.

Henry Dodge was the governor of the Wisconsin Territory. Governor Dodge took his oath of office in Mineral Point and temporarily lived in nearby Belmont.

In his first message to the legislature, Dodge recommended a grant of one township of land be made to support an academy. The legislature did not move on this recommendation. However, it did pass an act for the establishment of the “Wisconsin University” at Belmont. Thirty-one trustees were named, but the project did not materialize. (Thwaite)

This reflects an interest within the territorial legislature to establish a Wisconsin University. It also reveals a means to finance such a university — land grant; i.e., grant land, sell it, and use the proceeds to finance the university. That theme remains customary over the years ahead.

This photo shows the first capitol of the Wisconsin Territory at Belmont.

Gregg Hoffman has written that conditions were crowded in Belmont. it was not to everyone’s liking. He said, “Lawmakers never really warmed up to Belmont.” One effect was that the legislature was hell-bent on finding a new capital for the territory.

The legislature began to consider other locations. Different people advocated different locations.

Let’s zero in on a most absorbing character, James Duane Doty. He was an aggressive politician active in the Wisconsin and Michigan territories and one who traveled throughout both. He was also a political opponent of Governor Dodge.

In addition to being a politician, Doty was an avid land speculator and developer. He particularly enjoyed laying out new towns. James W. Shields from the School of Architecture & Urban Planning, UW-Milwaukee, has compiled the plans of cities designed by Doty.

In early 1836, Shields tells us Doty met in Detroit with Steven Mason, the new Governor of the Michigan Territory“ and a man of means.” Together they talked about land investment opportunities. John Suydam, a surveyor, traveled with Doty and Mason to the Wisconsin Territory in November 1836.

Suydam documented his memory of the trip. He said they came across a place called “Four Lakes.” These lakes were Lake Kegnosa, Lake Mendota, Lake Monona, and Lake Waubesa. Doty was taken by the isthmus that ran between Lake Mendota and Lake Monona. Prior to leaving Detroit, Doty had already registered the purchase of the narrow isthmus.

A smart businessman, Doty took full control over the disposition of the land without having to consult his investors. The land had been occupied largely by the Ho-Chunk Native American Nation. the domain consisted of about a thousand acres of swamp and forest, in short, a wilderness. Brian D’Ambrosio has written,

“After contracting to have the land surveyed, Doty began to create plans for a city nestled between Lake Mendota and Lake Monona. He chose the name Madison in honor of the fourth president, James Madison. Doty lobbied for recognition of his city and proposed that it be named Wisconsin’s capital. In his proposal, he gained support by mapping transportation plans and offering land to legislators who voted in the city’s favor.”

The Territorial Legislature approved Madison as the new capital. It held its second session from 1837-1838 in Burlington in present-day southeast Iowa, pending the construction of a capitol in Madison. It is interesting to note that Doty replaced Dodge as territorial governor in 1841.

The legislature had approved a bill to establish the “Wisconsin University of Green Bay,” but it ended up becoming Hobart University. There was then a bill to establish the “University of the City of Four Lakes” in the vicinity of Madison, but that was amended in early 1837 to read,

“That there shall be established at or near Madison, the seat of government, a University for the purpose of educating youth, the name whereof shall be 'the University of the Territory of Wisconsin.'"

While there was a law on the books establishing the university, very little was done to make it a reality until the territory became a state in 1848. There was an action taken to set a foundation for the university, however.

The territorial legislature directed its delegate in the US Congress to ask for money for university buildings and request a grant of two townships of land as an endowment. Congress did not approve the request for money, but it did approve the request for a land grant to be used to fund the university.

Lands were selected but not used until the territory became a state in 1848. There was not much public interest in the university at the time.  The settlers were few, and they had many more demanding challenges before them.

The Wisconsin Historical Society says, “Immigrants flooded into Wisconsin beginning in the 1840s.”  The population was 30,945 in 1840. In 1850, shortly after becoming a state, the population was 305,391, The 1870 census shows that over a million people came to live in the state.

Logging and lead mining continued on but at diminishing levels. The first major agricultural crop was wheat. It was relatively inexpensive to plant, agricultural machinery was well suited to prairie conditions, and the rate of return was good.  Professor Apps cites Joseph Schafer, who wrote,

“The New York farmers, the Pennsylvania farmers, the Ohio farmers who came to Wisconsin in the early rush of settlement were by habit and tradition primarily wheat growers.”

Schafer talks of “the ease with which wealth in the form of wheat could be extracted from the limestone-rich soils of Wisconsin prairies and openings.”

In sum, growing wheat was the crop of choice in Wisconsin. Julie Grace wrote:

“The focus of farmers in the state's early decades was on growing wheat. In 1860, Wisconsin was the second largest state for wheat production in the United States.

By 1870, however, wheat cultivation began to fail, compelling farmers to turn to other crops like hops, tobacco, potatoes and hemp.”

‍ Professor Apps talks to this subject. He wrote:

“Income from growing wheat declined for three major reasons: nitrogen-depleted soils (farmers did not yet know about fertilization and raised few animals to provide natural fertilization); disease and insect infestation (growing the same crop year after year invited disease and insect problems); and the emergence of railroads, which made fertile lands west of Wisconsin ready markets for wheat and new competition for the product.”

By 1879, according to historian Joseph Schafer,

“So far as southern Wisconsin was concerned, wheat growing was at its last gasp.” Farmers stood at a crossroads. Those who knew and loved raising wheat and could not see beyond it picked up and moved west of the Mississippi River. But many Wisconsin farmers chose to stay and began searching for other ways to make a living. (Apps )

The mid-19th century was a milestone period for “things agricultural” in the state. A need to diversify became economically apparent. Wheat alone was not going to cut the mustard for much longer.

In my mind, this need to diversify away from wheat set the stage for a most interesting agricultural evolution that would link farming to science and, within a decade or two, to the UW.

You will recall the University of the Territory of Wisconsin was established in 1836. However, it took statehood to move it off the dime. One inhibiting factor was the lack of funding. The strategy was to sell public lands to finance the university. This did not work out well. (Thwaite)

It's 1848, and Wisconsin became a new state.

The new state needed a constitution. A convention at Madison in February 1848 approved one. The voters adopted it in March.

Of interest to us here, the constitution provided for "the establishment of a state university, at or near the seat of state government... and directed by the state legislature to be governed by a board of regents and administered by a Chancellor.” (Thwaite) Take note that the legislature said it would direct the university. That;’s exactly what it did.

The legislature passed an act incorporating the University of Wisconsin (UW) in July 1848. Governor Nelson Dewey was the first governor and he signed that into law.

UW would have five departments: Science, Literature and the Arts, Law, Medicine, and Theory and Practice of Elementary Education. (Thwaite)

The first class of 20 male students met in early 1849.

Financing the university remained a huge issue, a great question mark. the legislature passed a law that “provided for the appointment … of three persons in each county as appraisers of school and University lands.” They were to appraise public lands, and sell them, providing the funds to the university. (Thwaite)

This land grant concept first begun back in 1836 did not fare any better during the period 1848 through at least 1862. The financial situation of the university during that period was precarious at best.

Results from selling the land were not good for a number of reasons. The university was forced to obtain a series of loans from Congress. It soon fell into serious debt.  The funding processes were badly mismanaged. The population was growing nicely, but settlers had little appetite for a university at the time. (Thwaite)

There was an effort to repeal the university’s charter, but that failed. John H. Lathrop, the university’s first chancellor, was inaugurated in 1850, but he resigned in 1858. (Thwaite)

Throughout this financial turbulence, the university somehow made do. I might be forgiven if I now say, “Saved by the bell,” or perhaps, “Saved by the war.”

The American Civil War began in 1861 and ended in 1865. The US Congress passed two historic and revolutionary laws in 1862. That the US Congress would pass these two laws with the civil war in train is noteworthy; I would say calculating, maybe even mischievous.

The first historic law was the Homestead Act of 1862. The second was the Morrill Act of 1862.

The Homestead Act of May 20, 1862, transferred 160 acres of unoccupied public land to each homesteader. Some 80 million acres were distributed by 1900. It opened the country to widespread land ownership and agriculture.

Congress also passed the Morrill Act of July 2, 1862. It provided each state with 30,000 acres of federal land for each member in its congressional delegation. The states then sold the land and used the proceeds to fund public colleges focused on agriculture and the mechanical arts. This marked the beginning of land grant colleges.

The Congress was prescient. Nebraska Public Media provides insight: (

“Why did Congress and President Abraham Lincoln turn their attention to homesteading, the creation of land grant colleges, and the transcontinental railroad in a time of war?

“Before the Civil War, Northern states had wanted to open up the West to settlement. They thought that homesteads, the transcontinental railroad, and land grant colleges were important to that process:

  • “The Homestead Act would provide settlers to occupy the new lands.
  • “The Transcontinental Railroad would provide transportation to get them there.
  • “And the Morrill Act would permit land grant colleges to provide knowledge and information — particularly to help farmers farm.”

The South saw both laws as threats to its hold on slavery. However, the Congress and president were free of the southern states, which had seceded from the Union and therefore had no vote. Clever!

I will again point you toward History of the University of Wisconsin, by Reuben Gold Thwaites, 1900. His work is jam-packed with useful, eye-opening chronicles of the workings of the legislature, UW and agriculture. I will continue to draw from it.

Remember, UW began to take form in 1848.

A legislative committee addressing agriculture had urged the legislature as early as 1854 to create and fund an agricultural department for the university. The report argued:

“Let it be known that there is one spot upon the broad bosom of our State, where the farm boy can burst from his chrysalis gloom and walk forth in the clear blaze of rural light, with all its laws and conditions in view, and the result will show in favor of what profession aspiring talent will manifest itself. * * * Let this be done, and your Committee will guarantee that there will be much less discrimination against rural pursuits, by youth of talent and energy." (Thwaite)

There is a strong implication there that this committee felt many in the country discriminated against farmers, having placed them in a lower caste, a container from which they would be hard-pressed to earn respect.

Thwaites said, “nothing came of this report.” However, the regents of the university promised “to offer yearly instruction to agricultural classes in chemistry and its applications.”  (Thwaite)

I see this promise as monumental. This legislative committee in 1854 suggested education of farm boys will help them farm and will help them improve their position in the eyes of those who discriminate against people engaged in “rural pursuits.”

This event linked educating farmers and the agricultural department at the university. Recall the university was young and established by the state just six years earlier, in 1848. Also in 1854, the regents named Dr. S.P Lathrop, M.D., to be a professor of chemistry and natural history. The intent was for him to offer “yearly instruction to agricultural classes in chemistry and its applications." (Thwaite)

Wisconsin accepted the Morrill Act land grant in 1863. The university continued to experience significant financial losses during the Civil War. The regents again asked the legislature to help. The legislature tried various remedies, but the university was in such bad financial shape that the legislature had to take more extreme action.

The state legislature decided to reorganize in 1866. In turn, it told the university to reorganize as part of the legislative reorganization.(Thwaite)

The legislature required UW to include an agricultural department in its reorganization. UW had been a liberal arts university. The UW and agriculture became one in 1866. Recall that the Morrill Act was an effort to connect public colleges to agriculture and the mechanical arts. That certainly happened in Madison.

There’s more to that story. Many of the states receiving land grants chose to separate agriculture from their liberal arts institutions. They created new agricultural and mechanical arts colleges rather than incorporate them into existing universities.  (National Research Council)

Not so Wisconsin. UW would integrate agricultural studies into its overall institution.

The legislative reorganization of UW in 1866 set forth another important requirement. It took an extra step to bolt agriculture even more tightly to the overall UW structure. It stipulated:

“Immediately upon the reorganization of the board, it shall be their duty to make arrangements for securing, without expense to the State or to the funds of the University, purchases of suitable lands in the immediate vicinity of the University, not less than two hundred acres, including the University grounds, for an experimental farm, and as early as possible thereafter, to make such improvements thereon as will render it available for experimental and instructional purposes, in connection with the agricultural course in the College of Arts.”(Thwaite)

The legislature authorized Dane County to issue bonds and provide the resulting funds to UW. The legislature put pressure on Dane county to get this done within 30 days of the passing of the reorganization. The entire reorganization would be canceled if Dane County failed to accomplish the assigned tasks. The county hopped on this quickly and issued the bonds. That enabled the university to obtain 195 acres “immediately west of the University grounds.” The size of the university instantly grew to 235 acres. (Thwaite)

These achievements came with boatloads of politics.

Some in the Wisconsin legislature, specifically the senate, felt obliged to assign the College of Agriculture to Ripon’s college, retaining liberal arts at UW. (Schafer, A History of Agriculture in Wisconsin).

Not so Wisconsin. UW would integrate agricultural studies into its overall institution.

There were other hiccups. Professor Schafer commented that farmers at that time did not want to integrate agriculture with the UW. The farmers were concerned that UW, as a rule, had not been educating farmers and concluded the fit would not be good. They wanted to move it elsewhere.

‍ Professor Apps  has noted, “Finally, in 1866 the Wisconsin legislature awarded the money (gained as the result of the Morrill Act) to the University of Wisconsin.”  Agriculture was integrated with liberal arts in one university, UW-Madison. The university had been using land grants from its inception in 1836. It now was officially a land grant university. Case closed.

The Morrill Act had a huge impact on agriculture in the state and on Wisconsin’s farmers. Joseph Schafer noted in 1922 that integrating the College of Agriculture with the rest of the university was “hailed as a great triumph for scientific agriculture in Wisconsin.” (Schafer) UW-Madison has opined the Morrill Act “radically changed the mission of the University of Wisconsin.” (Bill Graf)

So there we are: “Scientific agriculture.” That meant more than single-crop agriculture, more than just wheat. It meant diversity.

A Great Economic Transformation

The Civil War produced great political anxiety across the spectrum of society. America as a nation experienced a major economic transformation.

Robert Higgs, an economic historian, in his book The Transformation of the American Economy, 1865-1914, has said the economy changed in marked ways. There was rapid economic growth. The old economic order was shattered, and a new economic order was born. He wrote,

“Building, wrecking, and rebuilding, with immense energy and boundless optimism, Americans in the half century after 1865 outstripped all rivals in the race to create wealth.  But progress had its price. The creation of a modern, ever-expanding economy disrupted and then destroyed the old order in economic life, and casualties lay strewn along the road of progress.

“No one remained unaffected, nor did any industry or region escape the vast transformation that swept the nation.” (Higgs)

Higgs cited a fellow named Rodney Welch, who, in 1891, gave his perspective about the inability of farmers to keep pace with other industries,

“(Farmers) are generally in a condition of unrest, if not of discontent. Their social condition has not improved, as has that of mechanics and traders. Most of them are anxious to leave the farm for the store, the shop, the mine, or the locomotive …. Farmers have long been losing their place and influence in the councils of the State an nation. Our later Congresses have not contained enough farmers from the northern States to constitute the committees on agriculture. Our national law-makers have known so little about what would promote the prosperity of farmers that they have favored measures that have greatly injured agriculture.” (Higgs)

(Higgs) refers to David Wells, who wrote “Recent Economic Changes’” Wells cited the problem of the “mass of adults, whose previous education has not qualified them for taking advantage of new opportunities which material progress offers to them … (as) a serious one, and one not easy to answer.” (Higgs)

One last point made by Higgs: “A learning process lay at the heart of these adjustments (to the new economic and natural environments.”

Scientists enter the picture.

This is a good time to introduce several scientists who came to UW and had a great impact an Wisconsin agriculture in the second half of the 19th century, which is when the UW started to kick into all gears. I must say I was impressed and even moved by the influx of such men and their impact on agriculture in the state. I present brief descriptions of their interests, work, and achievements to give you a flavor of the breadth of science these men brought to the agricultural table. These men provide evidence of the move in Wisconsin toward diversity in farming.

William A. Henry came to UW in 1881 as professor of botany and agriculture, the university’s first professor of agriculture.

The Wisconsin Historical Society said he became known as the “Father of scientific agriculture.”

In 1887 he founded and became the director of the agricultural research station. The College of Agriculture was organized in 1891, and he was made the dean, a post he held until his retirement in 1907. He founded the first short course in agriculture and the first dairy school.

In his article, “The Agricultural College,” published in 1902, Henry said, this about UW,

“There were some good Shorthorn cattle (in the farm), two or three fair Holsteins, half a dozen pigs, one or two good horses and three or four very poor ones. The buildings consisted of the farm house, the homely old horse barn and the present little red barn, which we are hoping to move and rehabilitate before long. All other buildings have been put up since my coming.”

He commended the farm manager, Mr. E.G. Hayden. He also said, “Much good had been done by Professor Daniells in introducing improved varieties of farm plants.

Daniells had preceded Dr. Henry at the farm. Dr. Henry said the Manshury barley (a variety obtained from the mountains of Mantchooria, Asia) which he disseminated, was alone worth millions of dollars to the farmers of this state and the Northwest.”

Dr. Henry said the legislature appropriated $5,000 annually to the university’s farmers’ institutes in 1885, and increased that to $12,000 in the next session, and $15,000 in 1887.

Henry commented that students from among the farmers were hard to come by. Some did enroll but not in agriculture. This problem drew the attention of the regents. Senator William Vilas, Henry noted, said something like this at a meeting of the regents:

“Gentlemen: the regents wish you to plan a course of study of such a character that it will allow the young farmer to leave his home for the University after the fall work is done and he can be spared from the farm. He should not pass any severe entrance examinations, and he should return to the farm in the spring, when he is again needed. This course should be intensely practical and helpful to such young farmers."

Henry commented, “This was the origin of the Short Course in Agriculture … Nineteen students registered the first year.” He later noted, “The winter of 1901 found us teaching seventy dairy pupils in the little frame dairy building at the farm called ‘the Dairy School building.’”

The Dean saw a lot of forward motion with the College of Agriculture. He reflected,

“Agriculture must remain the greatest single vocation in our state, and the prosperity of this commonwealth rests primarily upon the prosperity and success of its farming peoples. These can succeed only when they are intelligent, thrifty and pursuing the right lines of agricultural industry. To bring these conditions there must be a strong central institution like our Agricultural College and Experiment Station, working steadily for the elevation and advancement of the people it represents.”

So that was the name of that tune!

Franklin H. King was a professor of agricultural physics at UW-Madison from 1888-1902. I must say I would never have equated physics with agriculture. Kind did!

He focused on soil physics, i.e., the nature and properties of soil, including soil fertility. For example, he studied the water-holding capacities of soil, the moisture requirements of plants, how water moves through the soil, and groundwater.

The UW Soil Science, College of Agricultural and Life Sciences presents an in-depth look at his work, “Franklin Hiram King.

King is well known for inventing and designing the cylindrical storage silo to reduce spoilage. He demonstrated that cylindrical silos were stronger than other forms of storage and reduced spoilage better than the others. He built a cylindrical barn which was used as a model for the silos. He also did the first year-long study of the power generated by windmills.

Dr. King experimented with heaters and irrigation to reduce frost damage to orchards. He was a prolific author describing the results of his efforts.

He has been called the “Father of Soil Physics.” He was also a teacher, offering courses in agricultural meteorology, the first of its kind in the US.  Dr. King even produced a paper entitled “Economic Relations of Wisconsin’s Birds,” in which he addressed the economic importance of birds in relation to agriculture.

King was head of the U.S. Bureau of Soils, Division of Soil Management, from 1901 to 1904. 

Dr. King wrote a fascinating book about “Permanent Agriculture in China, Korea and Japan.” In his introduction, he highlights how farming in Asia has been in train for centuries. He wrote of his desire “to learn how it is possible, after twenty and perhaps thirty or even forty centuries, for their soils to be made to produce sufficiently for the maintenance of such dense populations as are living now in those three countries.” In other words, how have they done that?

Stephen Babcock came to UW in 1887 as professor of agricultural chemistry. He served as chief chemist of the Wisconsin Agricultural Experiment Station. He sparked the development of the dairy industry in the state.

The Linda Hall Library has a nice article about him. as does the Wisconsin Historical Society.

One of Dr. Babcock’s achievements was the study of the butterfat content of milk. He perfected what is known as the Babcock Test, which measures the fat content of milk. In turn, this enabled the measurement of milk quality and the setting of inspection standards and fair prices.

Babcock helped develop the cold storage method of curing cheese. Prior to that, people cured cheese at room temperature. Doing this at room temperature increased the likelihood of mold. He also helped improve the centrifugal cream separator. Becky Marburger, PBS Wisconsin Education, wrote a biography of Dr. Babcock, noting he wanted to improve people’s lives through science. She notes that the Babcock Test “changed the dairy industry in Wisconsin and around the world.”

One important result of the Babcock Test was to expose unscrupulous farmers who were peddling their inferior dairy products, products which were often watered-down. Dr. Henry was a great fan of Babcock, and urged him to publish the results of his Babcock Test, but Babcock hesitated as he wanted to conduct more tests. He was that kind of scientist, even refusing a patent on the Babcock Test.

Babcock became quite famous for his work on butterfat, but arguably his greatest accomplishment had to do with animal nutrition. He is considered the founder of nutritional science and the chemistry of vitamins.

Becky Marburger strikes at our sweet tooth, writing, “Babcock Hall is on the University of Wisconsin campus, and is famous for delicious ice cream made there.” She also commented, “His roaring laughter often echoed through the university’s chemistry buildings as he carried out his experiments.” What a guy!

Henry C. Taylor was an agricultural economist. He established the Department of Agricultural Economics in 1909, the first of its kind in the world. He served as its chairman. This department focused on farm management, marketing, and land economics.

Professor Marvin A. Shaars, in his “Story of The Department of Agricultural Economics, 1909-1972,” writes about Dr. Taylor.

Dr. Taylor had been a member of the General Economics Department. He wanted to move to the College of Agriculture to develop his ideas on agricultural economics. 

Shares wrote that Professor William A. Scott had been teaching agricultural economics to Farm Short Course students for some time as early as 1893. Taylor sat in on his lectures and then began giving these lectures himself. At the time, this was done under the auspices of the General Economics Department. Taylor went to Dr. Henry and asked him whether it could be handled in the College of Agriculture. Henry could not envision this for the foreseeable future.

Taylor, not to be discouraged, gave 14 lectures on the Economics of Farm Management to short-course students in the winter of 1902-1903 and assembled a syllabus. He took it to Dr. Henry, Henry liked it and asked Taylor to prepare one for a long course. There was some tension about moving this out of General Economics to the Agricultural department but Taylor’s wishes prevailed.

Shaars’ paper is quite interesting. He highlights Professor Dan H. Otis, “originally a Professor of Animal Husbandry, who became interested in farm management.” He and others got involved in improving business and management practices on the farm, keeping financial records, sociologic studies of farm families and rural schools, marketing, cooperatives, and the list goes on. Programs were developed for advanced degrees, and course offerings were expanded. Student enrollment grew as a result.

I might remark here that there are some who have argued that advocates linking farming to science were actually motivated by increasing overall student enrollment, gaining increased university access to state funding, and obtaining greater personal recognition. That would be an interesting topic to discuss on another day, on the subject of “empire building.”

I suppose there can be a fine line! My impression is the people involved in building UW’s role in agriculture have done so largely to make life better for more people. I believe that’s exactly what they have done. Added to that, they were avid scIentists for certain.

This is a good time to introduce “The Wisconsin Idea.”

“The Wisconsin Idea”

“The Wisconsin Idea” emerged from the Progressive Era. “The Wisconsin Idea” asserts “that education should influence people’s lives beyond the boundaries of the classroom.” UW-Madison has said it is “One of the longest and deepest traditions surrounding the University of Wisconsin.” (University of Wisconsin-Madison)

Most credit Charles Richard Van Hise with inaugurating “The Wisconsin Idea.”

He was a UW geology graduate of 1892, and served as president of the university’s Board of Regents in 1903 until he died in 1918. (University of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries)

Speaking before a press association in February 1905, he said,

“I shall never be content until sufficient influence of the University reaches every family of the state.” (Hise)

His viewpoint has been reflected in a motto, “The boundaries of the campus are the boundaries of the state.” (The Historical Marker Database)

Charles McCarthy, a progressive leader and chief of the Legislative Reference Library of Wisconsin, wrote a book published in 1912, The Wisconsin Idea. In the book’s preface, McCarthy said,


“If I show a certain spirit now and then which may seem to cloud my judgment as to certain matters herein contained, I crave the reader's pardon on the score that I, a wandering student, seeking knowledge, came knocking at the gates of the great University of Wisconsin, and it took me in, filled me with inspiration, and when I left its doors the kindly people of the state stretched out welcoming hands and gave me a man's work to do. (McCarthy)

The linkage between farmer and science

Hopefully, by now, the linkage between farmers and science is obvious.

There are three topics I still wish to introduce:

  • Farmer education
  • university agricultural research stations
  • College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, their place on the UW-Madison campus.

You will recall that I highlighted the legislative reorganization of 1866 that required UW to purchase land near the university for an experimental farm and that such a farm would make its knowledge available to farmers. In 1883, the state legislature increased the tax levy that, in part, was to be used to establish an agricultural research station. The legislation linked agricultural research with “instruction in agricultural arts.” (Thwaite)

As a result of these and many other events, the state and UW created an agricultural extension program that carried knowledge obtained through scientific research at its agricultural research stations to the farmer in the field.

Agricultural Extension

In the late 19th century and extending into the 20th and beyond, an evolution took hold in Wisconsin that married scientific research and farmer education, a practical amplification of “The Wisconsin Idea.” The history here is fascinating.

Donald F. Carmony, an Indiana historian and member of the Indiana University faculty, wrote,

“The University of Wisconsin has been a pioneer in the (extension) movement. Starting in the late 1880s with institutes for farmers and teachers, Wisconsin soon added popular lectures, chautauqua-like offerings at Monona Lake, and correspondence study to her extension program.”

Joseph Schafer commented about the link between the farmer and science while contributing to an article, “Brief Outline of Wisconsin History,” writing a section about “The Age of Science:”

“The people of Wisconsin, in their government, in their agriculture and other industries, in their  conservation policies respecting human life, intelligence, and happiness, as also natural resources; in their education systems and the function these are permitted to exercise in relation to practical concerns; even in their reasoned if not always reasonable and sweet tempered politics --- afford one of the best illustrations of a society which is swayed by the scientific motive. (Schafer, Brief Outline of Wisconsin History)

E.L. Luther, a former UW professor of agricultural extension, writing “Farmers’  Institutes in Wisconsin, 1885-1933,” tells us,

“Farmers’ conventions, formerly held at the capitol under the auspices of the Agricultural Society, now came to be held at the University under college auspices. The farmers’ institute, directed by the college, was established in 1886. From that year series of meetings were held in the several counties, which in character were mass meetings of farmers for the discussion of selected problems of agricultural improvement. Scientific men and practical farmers occupied the same platform, with the result that science was more closely controlled by experience and experience definitely guided by science. No other feature in the history of agricultural advancement, save possibly the more recent county agent system, has been so resultful in developing mutual respect and confidence between the farmer and the man of scientific learning.”

The UW has, over time, built the Extension Institute of Agriculture to help farmers achieve better results. The university says,

“Our innovative dairy management programs range from genetics to farm and business management. Extension researchers work hand-in-hand with row crop, forage and fresh produce growers to provide best practices for every aspect of the growing phase. We also advise communities on using sustainable practices to create inviting spaces free from invasive species. Our work supports people, communities and businesses.”

It has programs in crops and soils, dairy, farm management, Wisconsin horticulture, livestock, discovery farms, and master gardening.

Discovery farms, according to the university, “is a farmer-led research and outreach program focused on the relationship between agriculture and water quality. The program is unique in that it conducts research on privately-owned farms throughout Wisconsin, working with the U.S. Geological Survey to gather credible and unbiased water quality information from monitored sites.”

Agricultural Research Stations

You will recall the legislative reorganization of UW in 1866 told the Board of Regents to secure not less than 200 acres in the immediate vicinity of the university for an experimental farm. Furthermore, Dane County issued bonds and acquired some 195 acres west of the university for such a purpose.

Today, the university operates Agricultural Research Stations, twelve by my count. Let’s take a quick look. This endeavor is massive. This is no “fly-by-night” operation.  I will draw from each station’s explanation of what it does.

“The Arlington Agricultural Research Station is 20 miles north of Madison and supports almost all disciplines of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.”

The Hancock Agricultural Research Station is a “412-acre vegetable research farm located in the Central Sands area of Wisconsin, south of Stevens Point, visible from I-39. Field trials at the station are related to potatoes, field corn, sweet corn, soybeans, snap beans, carrots, cucumbers and switchgrass. The station is also home to the Wisconsin Potato & Vegetable Storage Research Facility.”

The Kemp Natural Resources Station is in Woodruff, Oneida County, in the Northwoods. It is “dedicated to research, instruction, and outreach concerning the management, conservation, and sustainable use of northern Wisconsin’s natural resources. Kemp Station’s 231 acres support some of the last remnants of old-growth forest in the Lake States. Several other distinct ecosystems are found on site, including second-growth forests of hemlock, pine, and northern hardwoods, lake coves, bogs, and one bog lake, over one mile of shoreline along Tomahawk Lake.”

The Lancaster Agricultural Research Station  is in Grant County just a tad west of Lancaster. It “facilitates research and educational programs to enhance profitable and environmentally sound agricultural and natural resource systems and practices appropriate for producers and rural landowners on the non-glacial soils of the upper Midwest. It is the only university agricultural research facility that is located in the Driftless or unglaciated region in the state.”

The Marshfield Ag Research Station is between Marshfield and Stratford in Marathon County. It is “home the nation’s premier dairy heifer research facilities. The station’s 750-acres of cropland are managed with soil and water conservation practices in mind. Dairy replacement heifer rearing and management, feed efficiency, soil and water conservation farming practices, perennial crops and nutrient management are research focuses at the Marshfield station.”

The O.J. Noer Turfgrass Research and Education Station is on the north side of Verona in Diane County. It was “developed by the Wisconsin Turfgrass Association in partnership with the UW Foundation and Agricultural Research Stations in the early 1990s, opening in 1992. The station started with 13 acres; 3 more were added in the late 1990s and an additional 10 were added in the early 2000s to accommodate a growing need for research space.

“Researchers use the Noer facility to compare different turfgrass varieties, mowing practices, equipment and strategies for fertilizer, irrigation and pest management.  There are typically 70-80 or more projects conducted at the facility each year.”

The Spooner Agricultural Research Station is on the east side of Spooner in Washburn County and is “the northernmost station and specializes in Agronomy and Horticulture crop production research.” It was “established in 1909, University of Wisconsin-Madison’s first agricultural research station.”

The station provides research information to growers using similar soils in northwest Wisconsin. “Research topics include: variety evaluation, planting date and plant population effects on yield and quality, forage seeding rates and mixture, disease control, fertilizer rates & products, soil pH effects and weed control methods.

“The Seed to Kitchen Collaborative research project is connecting plant breeder, direct-market farmers and chefs to improve flavor and direct market quality of vegetable varieties.”

“The Rhinelander Agricultural Research Station (RARS) of UW-Madison, located east of Rhinelander, Oneida County,  has contributed to the development of new potato varieties and solving problems of agricultural and natural resource management in northern Wisconsin. RARS is home to the Wisconsin State Potato Breeding Program.” It has operated since the 1940s.

“Many studies mapping the basic nature of the genetics of the potato have been carried on at this facility, resulting in national and international recognition through numerous publications and the release of new and improved potato varieties .”

The Peninsular Ag Research Station is located two miles north of Sturgeon Bay in Door County.  “Station staff initiate fruit research and outreach efforts to support local and state fruit industries.  Station research staff also coordinate projects with UW-Madison Departments, including Horticulture, Entomology, Agronomy, and Plant Pathology within the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.

“The Peninsular Station is  home to the NRSP-6 US Potato Genebank which maintains the world’s largest collection of wild and cultivated potato species. “

“The West Madison Agriculture Research Station is used by almost all disciplines in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences with focus on agronomic and horticultural plant breeding and variety trials, community outreach, student training, and providing feed and manure management for the UW-Madison campus livestock.”

A quick look at Agriculture and Life Sciences on campus

A friend, a UW-Madison graduate, toured me around the campus, showed me the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences grounds, and tipped me off to the school’s agricultural history. I’ll show you some of what I saw.

This is the Dairy Barn at UW-Madison, built in 1898. It has a main barn and silo, two livestock barns, and a classroom that also serves as a stock-judging arena. Lynn Grooms, writing for Agri-View, says,

“The Dairy Barn’s design was inspired by the rural architecture of Normandy, France. Agricultural-physics and soil-science professor F. H. King and other faculty provided significant input into the barn’s plans so it would meet their needs for future research and instruction. It was the site for early research on vitamins, silos, barn ventilation and forage storage. Most notably the groundbreaking

“single-grain experiment” was conducted there from 1907 to 1911, showing that corn-fed cows were more healthy than those fed with oats, wheat or a combination of the three. The discovery bolstered the idea of nutrition as a science.

“A milk house and additional livestock barn space were added in 1917 on the east side of the original barn. A portion of the original barn now houses the Equine Teaching and Research Center. The Dairy Barn was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2002, and deemed a National Historic Landmark in 2005.”

the UW’s Animal & Dairy Sciences says it is the only barn designated by the National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service. Dean William Henry lobbied hard for this building.

Significant experiments have been conducted here, including the “single-grain experiment conducted from 1907-1911. It was a cattle feeding study that established the ground-work for the modern science of nutrition.

This is the Horse Barn, built in 1868. the Wisconsin Historical Society tells us it originally had a Tudor Revival appearance and in 1899 was given a Neo-Tudor feature with a half-timbered gable end. The building stabled horses on the second floor. It was originally known as the farm barn, serving as a multi-purpose barn. It is the oldest wooden structure on campus.

This is the Dairy Cattle Center. It is next to the Dairy Barn facilities and is used for teaching and research. It houses 84 milking cows in a tie-stall barn. The classroom is attached. Students get hands-on access to the cows and get valuable practical experience.

I confess this building blew me away when I saw it. It is the Stock Pavilion. The University says,

“Historically, the Stock Pavilion was used to accommodate the large attendance at Farmer’s Course, livestock judging and demonstrations. It consists of a main arena, which can accommodate 2,000 people, stalls for livestock and storage for farm machinery and grain.

“Currently, the Stock Pavilion is used for educational purposes and to host events. The building is a landmark for agriculture and education at the University.”