University of Minnesota Alumni Association


Deep Roots

Minnesota farming has been synonymous with the U since its beginnings.

Photo from University Archives

The need for a college of agriculture at the University of Minnesota was discussed by state educational and political leaders from the school’s earliest days. Even as the U of M was taking shape back in the 1850s, through the Civil War, the beginnings of a nascent campus on the east bank of the Mississippi River, and on to the hiring of the University’s first president in 1869, the founders of the U envisioned the establishment of an institution of agricultural studies. No one anticipated it would take 20 years more to determine where that school would be located and how it would attract students.

In 1868, 90 acres of land for an experiment farm was purchased southeast of Minneapolis, straddling University Avenue from Oak Street to Prospect Park, about a mile east of the current campus. But the new site proved to be infertile. Further, few students, many of whom hailed from the country, envisioned learning about agriculture after coming to the city. For a dozen years, hardly anyone signed up for classes. 

Then, in 1881, Edward Porter assumed the chairmanship of the agriculture department and the seeds of a successful college were planted. Porter was able to recruit students where they lived, in the country, by establishing the first of the University’s outstate agricultural experiment stations. He also sold the experiment farm near the Minneapolis campus and with the proceeds bought a more expansive and suitable property off of Como Avenue in St. Paul. There, in 1888 at what became known as the University Farm—and today is the St. Paul campus—the agricultural school was soon thrumming with studies in animal husbandry, crop improvement, and horticulture.

By 1895, when William Liggett, the first dean of the College of Agriculture, was hired, the school was offering courses in agronomy, soil sciences, and dairy husbandry. In addition, the college offered a very popular series of short courses geared to working farmers and their families. Specifically designed to fit a farm schedule, these classes typically ran in the winter months, between November and March. Farm men and women could take courses in animal feeding techniques, beekeeping, swine health, growing berries, and many others.    

In 1897, the college became coeducational and shortly thereafter home economics courses were added to the curriculum. So many women signed up for classes that in 1914 home economics formed its own administrative unit. Similarly, the study of forestry, which came to the college in 1906, soon formed its own department. 

Growth continued with the establishment of departments of plant pathology, agricultural engineering, and agricultural economics in the early 20th century. Enrollment on the St. Paul campus boomed and construction of a new sheep barn, hog house, and expanded dairy hall commenced. Classrooms were added and a gymnasium was built. More dormitories soon followed, including two for the newly admitted women in the college. 

In addition to the new departments, experiment farms offering educational programs were set up in Waseca, Morris, Crookston, and Grand Rapids. Separate research stations were built in Duluth, Lake Itasca, and Cloquet. A fruit breeding farm in Excelsior, first headed by Charles Haralson, was soon producing delectable apples, including one named for the director. The U also partnered with the federal government to create a research lab to study the eradication of wheat rust.

By the 1920s, 14 departments comprised what was now called the College of Agriculture, Forestry, and Home Economics—a far cry from those early years when just filling a class with students was a chore.

Students of the college were a mix of young men and women: future farmers, home economists, and scientists. Typical was a young man from the small town of Cresco, Iowa, named Norman Borlaug (B.S. ’37, M.S. ’41, Ph.D. ’42), who arrived during the height of the Great Depression. His greatest interest early on was wrestling, but as an undergraduate he settled into the study of forestry. Then, a lecture on wheat rust by E.C. Stakman, one of the leading lights in the plant pathology department, changed Borlaug’s life—and eventually the lives of millions around the world who benefitted from his newfound interest in plant pathology. His groundbreaking work to develop wheat resistant to the devastating effects of the wheat rust virus ushered in the Green Revolution and is credited with saving millions of people from starving, work for which Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.

As the 20th century progressed, the college embraced its role in the international community. In 1963, the Institute of Agriculture, Forestry and Home Economics, as the college was then called, established the Office of International Agricultural Programs to assist a growing number of international students and to foster research and exchange programs in other nations.

The names of the college and departments have evolved over the years. The College of Forestry became the College of Natural Resources; the College of Home Economics became the College of Human Ecology; the Institute of Agriculture, Forestry and Home Economics became the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Studies. In 2006, the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, or CFANS, as it is designated today, was formed. It continues to thrive as Minnesota’s premier center for higher education in food, agricultural, and natural resource sciences. And, as it was more than a century ago, it remains an invaluable resource for the agricultural industry in Minnesota.

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