Farms and the Agricultural Experiment Station

Farms and farming in Tennessee have experienced great changes during two centuries of statehood. For example, the number of farms in Tennessee ranged from 72,735 in 1850 to 273,783 in 1935, before sliding to just under 80,000 in 1997. The average farm size during the same period experienced a reverse pattern, going from 261 acres in 1850 to 69.7 acres in 1935, before climbing to 145 acres in 1997. Other changes include those in the types of crops grown, the degree of specialization, the sources of power to carry out agricultural processes, and government regulation of operations and financial incentives. The Agricultural Experiment Station has contributed significantly to both the nature of agricultural information and the ways in which that information reaches farmers.

The earliest settlers did more hunting and gathering than farming. As they settled on the land, they learned farming techniques from Native Americans and family members. Pioneer farmers provided first for their families and livestock but quickly developed an interest in growing crops for the market, especially cotton and tobacco. These two crops continued to dominate the state's commercial agriculture for most of its history. In 1999 cotton and tobacco combined accounted for 19 percent of the state's receipts from agricultural products. The only other commodities producing large percentages were cattle and calves (20 percent) and broilers (14 percent).

Through the years, farms increasingly specialized as technology improved and markets became more demanding. As a result, farm families became more dependent on the larger society for the basic necessities of food and equipment for home and farm operation. Farm families now shop for food in area supermarkets and grocery stores.

The nature of power to carry out farm activities also changed dramatically. For much of the state's history, human labor, supplemented by animal power, provided the energy to complete farm work. In the antebellum period, slave labor made up a significant portion of the human labor force. In 1800 slaves accounted for about 20 percent of the population of Nashville; Knoxville was not far behind with 15 percent. With the emancipation of the slaves following the Civil War, a reorganization of relationships between the landowners and farm laborers occurred, resulting in the widespread development of sharecropping and tenancy.

Nonhuman sources of power produced changes in land use and promoted the development of specialized skills. The use of animal power required that part of the land be devoted to the production of hay or fodder. Tennessee farmers relied on animals to power farm equipment well into the twentieth century; the tractor became ubiquitous on farms in the 1940s and 1950s. Initially, farmers themselves contributed to the technology that produced improvements in equipment for tilling the soil and harvesting the crops. As equipment became more sophisticated, many farmers learned to do the work of electricians and welders. Eventually, farm equipment reached a level of sophistication that made farmers dependent upon specialists for service and repairs.

Before the creation of experiment farms and stations in the late 1800s, farmers relied on family, friends, and close neighbors for information, which was sometimes supplemented by letters from relatives and acquaintances. Largely self-sufficient, these farmers used agricultural information to make market decisions that made life somewhat easier and less risky. Neighbors often provided the most reliable information about local conditions and frequently established agricultural societies to formally address farm problems. The earliest of these societies in Tennessee formed in Washington, Greene, and Davidson Counties from 1819 to 1830. There was sufficient interest in such societies for the general assembly to pass an act incorporating a State Agricultural Society in 1842. Local societies promoted county fairs across the state where farmers displayed farm products and learned the latest agricultural information.

Congressional passage of the Morrill Act in 1862 reflected a continuing interest in educating farmers about agriculture. This act provided funds to establish state colleges emphasizing agriculture and the mechanical arts. Teachers in these colleges soon discovered that there was little systematic information about many facets of agriculture.

In 1883 a second bill, the Hatch Act, provided funds for the creation of Agricultural Experiment Stations to generate more systematic information. In 1882, before the passage of the Hatch Act, the Board of Trustees of the University of Tennessee created and inaugurated an experiment station in Knoxville. The College Farm became the site of agricultural experiments. In 1887 Dr. Charles W. Dabney became director of the UT Experiment Station. During this period the university set an important precedent that continues to this day: teachers in the College of Agriculture were also responsible for performing the experimental work in the Agricultural Experiment Station. The station began with a small staff and limited funds, but quickly organized into four divisions: Field and Feeding Experiments; Chemistry; Botany and Horticulture; and Entomology.

In the early 1900s branch stations were established to improve the local applicability of the research results. Eventually, the state built eleven stations, with each concentrating on crop and/or livestock enterprises important to the area. By the late 1930s, for instance, the Tennessee Agricultural Experiment Station operated the Middle Tennessee Experiment Station in Maury County; administered an agricultural experiment station as well as a demonstration farm at the University of Tennessee Junior College (now UT at Martin); operated the West Tennessee Experiment Station at Jackson; ran a State Agricultural Experiment Station, Madison Extension, in Montgomery County; and partnered with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in administering a Burley Tobacco Experiment Station near Greeneville and a Dairy Experiment Farm near Lewisburg. During the 1930s the state provided limited funding, and much of the work depended on contracts with various New Deal agencies. When Harcourt A. Morgan, former director of the Experiment Station, became director of the board of the Tennessee Valley Authority, he educated that agency in efficacy of utilizing Experiment Station knowledge and resources. The TVA and the Experiment Station worked together to provide a soil survey of the state. One of the most innovative partnerships was between UT and the Atomic Energy Commission in administering a research laboratory in Oak Ridge.

In addition to its spatial expansion, there was an increase in the number of disciplines represented in the station's organization. The basic disciplines of Plant and Soil Science, Animal Science, and Agricultural Engineering have been supplemented with Ornamental Horticulture and Landscaping Design; Entomology and Plant Pathology; Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology; Food Technology and Science; Forestry, Wildlife and Fisheries; and Agricultural Communications. Experiment Station services extend to a variety of citizens across the state, and programs developed by the UT stations are used in other states and around the world.

Suggested Reading

Thomas J. Whatley, A History of the Tennessee Agricultural Experiment Station (1994)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Farms and the Agricultural Experiment Station
  • Author
  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date June 21, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018