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150 year anniversary for U.S. ag

The USDA, the Homestead Act and the land grant college system are marking their 150th anniversary this year. Abraham Lincoln may be best known for the emancipation proclamation, but he signed the acts that created these three important institutions.
By Susanne Retka Schill | July 09, 2012

The USDA, the Homestead Act and the land grant college system are marking their 150th anniversary this year. Abraham Lincoln may be best known for the emancipation proclamation, but he promoted and signed the acts that created these three important institutions for the development of agriculture.  

The USDA has a number of resources on its website covering the anniversary. One, written by historian Wayne Rasmussen, talks about Lincoln’s agricultural legacy, giving a glimpse into the mindset of that era:

“On September 30, 1859, Lincoln addressed the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society at its annual fair in Milwaukee. This was the only extended discussion of agriculture he ever made. He began by praising agricultural fairs as a means of bringing people together. However, the main purpose of the fair was to aid in improving agriculture.

“Lincoln spoke of the desirability of substituting horse-drawn machines for hand power, and the potential usefulness of steam plows. He urged more intensive cultivation in order to increase production to the full capacity of the soil. This would require the better use of available labor. Lincoln contrasted ‘mud sill’ and free labor, identifying ‘mud sill’ laborers as slaves or hired laborers who were fixed in that situation. Free laborers, who had the opportunity to become landowners, were more productive than the ‘mud sill’ workers.

“Free labor could achieve its highest potential if workers were educated. As Lincoln put it: ‘...no other human occupation opens so wide a field for the profitable and agreeable combination of labor with cultivated thought, as agriculture.’

“His endorsement of education and his belief that farmers' interests were of primary importance indicated Lincoln's interest in agricultural reform. After saying that farmers were neither better nor worse than other people, Lincoln continued: ‘But farmers, being the most numerous class, it follows that their interest is the largest interest. It also follows that that interest is most worthy of all to be cherished and cultivated -- that if there be inevitable conflict between that interest and any other, that other should yield.’"

Interesting, that in Lincoln’s view when there be a conflict of interest, the farmers’ interests take priority. Of course, in that day, farmers accounted for 50 percent of the population and today less than 2 percent. So if one emphasized the reference to “the most numerous class,” farmers’ interests would be low priority, as indeed they seem to be today in our culture.  

I do think that we’ve taken for granted the importance of these institutions in making U.S. agriculture the most productive on the globe. Thanks to the foresight of those leaders 150 years ago, we have an educational and research system that has born great fruit. The many branches of USDA support conservation, rural development and so many more things that have helped rural America prosper. And, I suspect the Homestead Act that gave free land to people who could stick it out for five years is more responsible for this nation’s wealth than any other single act. Considering the sheer grit and determination of homesteaders puts concerns about the current economic struggles in a far different perspective.

The USDA website is loaded with articles about the many facets of these important acts, the history, original documents and important developments since, plus details on the various celebrations marking the anniversary.