Elevating our thoughts and hopes

Since 1889, the the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been publishing farmers’ bulletins to disseminate the latest in agricultural science and research. I was recently reading through the first bulletin and was surprised by its poetic language. In making a case for why the USDA was setting up research stations across the country (still recovering from the Civil War) they made a claim for the beauty and wonder of agriculture:

“Modern science … finds as much that is wonderful in the growth of a blade of grass as in the motions of the planets, as much of inspiration in the process by which a clod of earth gives up its fertility as in the forces that keep the stars in their places in the universe. It shows us how the things we have to deal with in our homeliest toil connect us, if we but understand the linking, to what is most elevating in man’s thought and hope.”

I completely agree. The night sky over Washington Island is heart lifting. But so is its the soil beneath our feet. I am constantly surprised and enthralled by the delicate details of all the creatures that make home in healthy soil. The exquisite design of vines in the vineyard. Talk to most people who keep gardens or chickens or plant fields with potatoes and they will want to share with you about the beautiful details of their work with enthusiasm.

I was also intrigued by the the valuing of community and communal knowledge rather than the “pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps” mythology I had always heard discussed when talking about creation of America’s Heartland.

The first bulletin explains why the USDA is starting research stations and Farmers’ Bulletins:

“It is for the acquiring and diffusing of such knowledge, which is explained in books, popularized in lectures, and disseminated in the columns of the best papers; which interests the home circle, and supplies themes for farmers’ institutes and conventions; which helps farmers to improve their business and increase their incomes while it elevates farming as a profession and—what is by no means the least of its benefits—shows the boys that it is a profession in which brains can be used with profit; it is for this as well as for their help to farm practice that experiment stations are established and their workers are laboring with so much enthusiasm.”

The scientist at the research station, it appears, were not only interested in improving the bounty of cereal grains and the production of milch cows, but the entire community and culture around farming. Not for only agriculture, but for improving “community at large,” with the “need of something higher and better for themselves, their wives, their children, their homes, and their profession.” Or as the opening paragraph describes more directly: “The experiment station enterprise rests upon the broadest considerations of the prosperity, intelligence, and virtue of our people, and on these grounds it appeals to every citizen for discriminating criticism and cordial support.”

Below is a longer section from the opening paragraphs of the Farmers’ Bulletin 001. To read through this bulletin in full or bulletins, navigate to the Archive.org, which has the collection scanned and categorized.

THE WHAT AND WHY OF AGRICULTURAL EXPERIMENT STATIONS. WHAT THE STATIONS ARE FOR.

“Farming is a perpetual trying of experiments with soils, manures, and crops; with cattle and cattle food; with milk, butter, and cheese; with plows, harrows, and harvesters; with an almost endless list of things. The most successful farmers—those who get the most out of their land, their cattle, their crops, their fertilizers, their implements, and their labor—are those who experiment themselves most industriously, most skillfully, and most intelligently, and who take the fullest advantage of the experiments of others. The best agriculture is that which, in old countries, on worn and intractable soils, has learned by long-continued and varied experiment to make the gain of farming sure.” Once the farmer made the rude tools he needed for the primitive practice of his art. Now he employs implements and machinery which can be made only with large capital and the highest mechanical skill, and by men who make this manufacturing a business. So the experiments which he can make do not meet his needs to-day. Research, the finding out of nature’s secrets, the discovery of the laws which underlie the right practice of agriculture, is costly. The more useful it is to be the greater must be the outlay of money, labor, and scientific skill. Here, if anywhere, wise economy calls for the best. Within recent times farmers and men of science interested in farming have seen the advantage of using the resources of science to improve the practice of agriculture, and have established agricultural experiment stations.

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