Book Farming? Agriculture Goes to School

"Book farming! Away with your book farming. I want no books to teach me how to raise wheat, corn and potatoes; I can raise as good crops as any of my neighbors, who seem to be filled with agricultural books and papers…"

This was the popular feeling among Iowa farmers in the 1800s. Careless, wasteful farming was the usual habit of Americans. Cattle and hogs had no sheds over them. Wheat was planted on last year's cornfield without plowing. Often when plowing was done, it was not deep enough to allow plant roots to grow deep into the ground.

A School Farm 

Meanwhile, newspapers and farm journals were reporting on new methods and machines and urging farmers to take better care of their land and animals. And there were some Iowans who saw the need for such "scientific" farming. Among these men was Suel Foster, a nurseryman from Muscatine, whose occupation was planting, growing, and harvesting plants. He pushed forward plans for a state agricultural college and farm where careful, scientific farming could be taught. The school farm would be a place for experimenting with new ideas. The state legislature voted in favor of the idea, and in 1859 a place was chosen: 648 acres of unfarmed prairie in Story County.

There was not much money in Iowa at this time—and very little to spend on a new college. To help the school get started manufacturers gave machinery, Polk County nursery owners promised fruit trees, and animal breeders supplied livestock.

Gifts of Land from Congress

The United States Congress passed the Morrill Land Grant Act to help states start colleges for agriculture. Each state received 30,000 acres of land for each representative and senator that it had in the Congress. At that time Iowa had eight, and so was given 240,000 acres. The state sold some of this land and rented out the rest. Then Iowa used this money to get the college running. Colleges that were started by this gift of land from the government were called "land grant colleges".

A College for Farmers

Iowa State Agricultural College opened in 1868, with 77 men and 16 women enrolled. Students took classes, worked in the fields, cooked and even helped to put up added buildings. Few Iowans had the time to go to college, so the school looked for ways to reach farmers at home.

All over the state the college set up meetings for farm men and women. Women went to cooking and sewing classes. Their husbands learned which breeds of cows were best for beef or milk and which kinds of grass made the best feed. They were told how to keep their fields from wearing out or eroding. These were important matters, if a farmer wanted to keep the farm in good shape for future generations. The college teachers wanted Iowans to start thinking about the future of their land. They also studied how to keep records of their money.

A Teacher Becomes a Secretary

In 1891 a new professor, James "Tama Jim" Wilson, was hired by the college. James Wilson's life goal was to bring science and education into farming. As director of the experimental farm, it earned the respect of scientists and was accepted by farmers. The kind of scientific research James Wilson made possible at the college would become an important part of American agriculture.

Six years later President William McKinley asked James Wilson to be U.S. secretary of agriculture. As he had done in Iowa, James Wilson made the agriculture department a busy and respected place. Research and education programs grew and reached out to touch the lives of American farmers. "Tama Jim" was chosen to continue this job by two subsequent Presidents: Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.

College Show and Tell

Meanwhile, the agricultural college continued to promote book farming in Iowa. With the help of editor Henry Wallace, trains were sent around the state to "show and tell" the latest methods to farmers. In their first year these traveling classrooms stopped at 670 towns. Teachers from the college traveled nearly 10,000 total miles and talked to more than 127,000 people. Iowans learned they could look to the State Agricultural College at Ames for leadership as farming moved into the future.


  • Margaret Atherton Bonney, Ed., “Book Farming-Who Needs It?,” The Goldfinch 21, no. 3 (February 1981): 12-13.