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History of the Hatch Act of 1887

David G. Morrison

A strong desire to apply science for the improvement of agriculture was present even before the official beginning of this nation. This interest came to America with the British and European immigrants who settled this land. The first settlers quickly learned they had to adapt or starve. With a great variety of crops and soils, Americans began, through trial and error, to answer agricultural production questions early-on.

Many leaders of the American Revolution were farmers, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Both these men were interested in experimenting with agriculture on their own farms, and both helped organize societies for improving agriculture, which were pioneers in agricultural science and education.

In a 1796 presidential address, Washington called for a federally  funded national board of agriculture that would act as a center for encouraging experimentation. Unfortunately, the proposal died in Congress. Nevertheless, agriculture societies continued to hold meetings to exchange information into the 19th century. The desire for a national agency to address the needs and interests of farmers became a persistent idea.

In the 1840s, the movement to apply science to farming gained new life because of European discoveries in soil analysis. John P. Norton of Connecticut traveled to Scotland to study under James F.W. Johnston, a famous agricultural chemist, and learned the value of scientific investigation. Upon his return to the United States, Norton began to advocate fervently for a system to combine education and research, although he never saw his desires fulfilled.

One of Norton’s students, Samuel W. Johnson, took up the crusade. After observing a government-sponsored German experiment station, which included experimental plots, Johnson began to seriously campaign for an American system of agricultural experiment stations.

The Civil War interrupted the progress toward public support for agricultural experimentation. Before the war, however, there had been a concurrent growing sentiment for government sponsorship of vocational higher education to serve the common man in the American agrarian society. In 1857, Rep. Justin Morrill of Vermont introduced a proposal to give each state federal land for each member of Congress. With money obtained from the sale of this “land grant,” each state would be required to fund a college “to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanical acts.” Though the bill never made it out of committee, it was reintroduced several times in subsequent years. Ultimately, an amended version of the bill, the Morrill Land-Grant College Act, was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862.

In the ensuing years, farmers began to demand tangible evidence of the new land-grant colleges’ commitment to their well-being. Also, agricultural professors soon exhausted their small supply of science-based knowledge. Therefore, demonstration and model farms became early additions to the facilities at land-grant colleges. These farms evolved into rudimentary research facilities at which experiments began to be conducted.

The first state agricultural experiment station was established in 1875 in Middletown, Conn. Wilbur O. Atwater, a student of Samuel Johnson’s, became the Connecticut station’s first director. Two years later the state legislature moved the station to New Haven and made Johnson director.

Thirteen other states followed Connecticut in the decade before the Hatch Act by providing funds to support experiment stations. These included, in order, California, North Carolina, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Tennessee, Alabama, Wisconsin, Louisiana, Maine, Kentucky and Vermont. In Louisiana, the Legislature authorized a state experiment station as part of LSU at Baton Rouge in 1884, but did not actually put the facility in operation until 1886. A group of sugar farmers established their own private Sugar Station in 1885 on a plantation near Kenner. The chemist they employed, William Carter Stubbs, became the director of the state station in 1886. Thus, by 1887, fourteen states had established state agricultural experiments.

Another factor promoting the establishment of state agricultural experiment stations at each land-grant college was the desire by the faculty at these schools to meet for the sharing of experiences and to work for common goals. The first of these meetings occurred in 1871, and conferees discussed and adopted a proposal authored by Willard C. Flagg to encourage the founding of an experiment station at each land-grant school. Unfortunately, there were no precedents for funding such and nothing further happened for a decade.

By the early 1880s, enough states were struggling with the need for institutionalizing agricultural research that sentiment for a concerted national approach was revived. It was Seaman A. Knapp, a professor at Iowa State College, who authored a proposal that was first introduced to Congress. This bill called for an agricultural experiment station in each state to be funded out of the national treasury. During the next five years, this bill was revised a number of times until 1886 when the concept found favorability in the House agriculture committee then chaired by Rep. William H. Hatch of Missouri. The Hatch Act was signed into law by President Grover Cleveland on March 2, 1887. Each land-grant college was initially given $15,000 annually to support its experiment station.

By establishing an agricultural experiment station in each state in conjunction with the land-grant colleges, the Hatch Act provided continuing investment in agricultural science and technology. It authorized federal funds to the states to be used to conduct research “to promote scientific investigation and experiments respecting the principles and applications of agricultural science…bearing directly on the agricultural industry of the U.S.” It also stated that the research should have “due regard to the varying conditions and needs of the respective states…”

Americans and people of the world have benefited tremendously from the agricultural research provided by our national system of state agricultural experiment stations. In celebrating the 125th anniversary of the Hatch Act, we recognize the achievements of past and present agricultural researchers.  

David G. Morrison, Assistant Director, Louisiana Agricultural Experiment Station (now retired)

Last Updated: 6/22/2012 10:01:48 AM

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