The United States Department of Agriculture and State Agricultural Experiment Stations: History of Work with Soy

by William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi

A Chapter from the Unpublished Manuscript, History of Soybeans and
Soyfoods, 1100 B.C. to the 1980s

©Copyright 2004 Soyfoods Center, Lafayette, Californi

In Chapter 32, which described the work of the Society for Acclimatization to introduce soybeans and soyfoods into France, we saw that one of the major reasons for the rather meager long-term success of their efforts was the lack of support and leadership from the French government and the lack of soy pioneers within the government. The very opposite was the case in America. In studying the early research and publications on soybeans and soyfoods in America, one is struck by the unusually large proportion of these that were issued by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the various state agricultural experiment stations. The official interest in soy, which was still a new and unknown crop, by high-ranking government agencies and officials, served both to legitimize and to stimulate further interest, research, and commercialization of soybeans and soyfoods by universities, agricultural experiment stations, private companies and groups, and individuals. Equally important, the USDA and the state experiment stations shared the results of their research and work with everyone who was interested. In England, by contrast, most of the early research was done by private companies, which kept their findings secret. The English soy pioneer Gray (1936), felt that this was a major reason for the lack of development of soybeans in that country.

In Part I of this chapter, we will outline the early history of the USDA and the state agricultural experiment stations, and their work with seed and plant introduction; this will give deeper meaning to the rest of this chapter, and to their work of helping to disseminate soybeans in the United States (already discussed in Chapter 2) and to expand soybean production (discussed in Chapter 3). Part II will tell the important and sometimes romantic story of the work of the USDA Office of Seed and Plant Introduction and of its agricultural explorers, who introduced thousands of soybean varieties to America. Part III will consider the work of the USDA and the agricultural experiment stations with soyfoods up to the 1940s. The USDA's work with soyfoods after 1942, done largely by the Northern Regional Research Center at Peoria, Illinois, will be discussed in Chapter 44. The pioneering work of William J. Morse and Charles V. Piper, both of the USDA, is the subject of Chapter 38.

Early History of the USDA, Experiment Stations, and Seed & Plant Introduction

The material in this section has been compiled from many sources, the most important of which are by Ryerson (1933, 1976), Ball (1936), True (1937), Stevenson (1954), and Baker et al. (1963) and M.S. Smith (1979).

1764 and 1775. Benjamin Franklin, agent of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in England, took a great personal interest in plant introduction, collecting and sending back seeds and cuttings. He also, almost certainly, arranged for the first soybeans to be imported to America from France in about 1780 or 1787?? (see Chapter 2). After the revolutionary war, Thomas Jefferson, while serving as the first US ambassador to France (1784-89), and many other representatives of the new government (as well as missionaries, consular officials, and travelers) followed Franklin's example by sending home seeds and plants. No provision was made by Congress, however, for their care or distribution after arrival (see 1839).

1784. Federal Patent Law was enacted. Practically all articles patented related to agriculture.

1785. Agricultural societies began to be established throughout the US.

1790. George Washington inaugurated the first move to aid American agriculture in his message to congress of 1790, and more elaborately in his last message of 7 December 1796. Himself a farmer, he urged the establishment of organizations to collect and diffuse agricultural information. In 1797 a House of Representatives committee recommended the creation of an American Society of Agriculture, funded by the federal government, with headquarters in Washington, DC. It never happened.

1819, March 26. A circular by the Secretary of the Treasury is the first official record of federal governmental activity in the interests of foreign plant introduction. It requested American consuls to send useful plants to the customs collectors at U.S. ports for distribution to American farmers. No expenses were authorized. In 1827 a similar circular was sent to U.S. consuls abroad and to captains of Navy ships.

1836. Henry L. Ellsworth was appointed commissioner of the newly reorganized Patent Office of the State Department. His subsequent influence on agriculture and plant introduction was immense. On his own initiative he began to distribute the seeds and plants of foreign origin (which were sent to him in abundance) to American farmers, using the franks (postage paid marks) of various congressional friends. Hauled on the congressional carpet for such conduct, he used this opportunity plus his 1837 report to urge the creation of a central agency to receive and distribute new seeds, plants, and information concerning them, as well as to encourage agriculture in other ways. His appeal was successful and such an agency was set up in the Patent Office in 1839 with an appropriation of $1,000 for the plant distribution work and for gathering agricultural statistics. This was the first appropriation ever made for agriculture by an American congress; it marked the beginning of the USDA. Ellsworth's annual reports of the Patent Commissioner, an innovation, dealt mostly with agriculture rather than with patents. By 1843 his Office was distributing free of charge 12,000 packets of seeds a year. He resigned his position in 1845 with a government policy of plant introduction firmly established and supported, if meagerly, by government funds specifically for this purpose. Subsequent commissioners continued Ellsworth's work, making the Patent Office the center of governmental agricultural activity from 1836-1862. In 1847 more than 60,000 packets of seed were distributed.

1840. The pioneering work in the application of science to agriculture was done in Europe by Liebig, Hellriegel, and Kellner - all in Germany.

1843 - England's first Agricultural Experiment Station was established at Rothamsted, Harpenden, England (25 miles north-northwest of London). "It was in 1843 that John Bennet Lawes, the proprietor of the Rothamsted estate and founder of the experiment station, secured the services of Doctor Joseph Henry Gilbert; and this association, which continued to the end of the century, made the names, Lawes and Gilbert, almost synonymous with Rothamsted..."

1851 - Germany's first Agricultural Experiment Station was established at Moeckern, at Leipzig.

1860 - The first European school of agriculture was started at Gembloux in Belgium.

1863 - Kansas State Agricultural College was established as the first land-grant college under the provisions of the Morrill Act.

1875 - The first state agricultural Experiment Station was established in Middletown, Connecticut. Later in 1875 the California Agricultural Experiment Station was founded at the University of California, Berkeley, by Eugene W. Hilgard.

1887 March 2 - The Hatch Experiment Station Act was approved by congress. Stimulated by the work of European experiment stations, it provided federal grants to the states for the creation of agricultural experiment stations and agricultural research.


1849. Patent Office was transferred from the State Department to the newly created Interior Department. This year marked the end of the combined patent and agricultural report. From this time on the report on agriculture was separate, but still done by the Commissioner of Patents.

1852. In 1852 congress gave special authority for the purchase of seeds and in 1854 included cuttings. From June 1853 to 1860 Daniel J. Browne was in charge of the Agricultural Division of the Patent Office. He emphasized the importance of the "introduction and naturalization of new and useful vegetable products, hitherto unknown in the United States." In 1854-55 Browne collected plants and seeds in Europe as the first U.S. governmental plant explorer.

1852 - Soybeans. It was during Browne's term of office that the Office first distributed soybeans. The first soybeans were received in 1852 from A.H. Ernst of Cincinnati, Ohio. He (and many subsequent writers during the mid-1800s) called these soybeans "Japan Peas" since the ancestors of the seeds he sent had come from Japan via San Francisco in March 1851, and thence into Illinois and Ohio. During 1853 the Patent Office distributed a few soybeans which it called "Soja beans" or "peas from Japan." The next year, in the Report of the Commissioner of Patents, Agriculture for the year 1853 (published in 1854), Ernst wrote a 2-page article on the Japan Pea, describing and praising the new plant, telling how it came to the U.S. from Japan, and giving instructions for its cultivation. This article, plus remarks on pages v-vi of the Report, elicited many requests for soybean seeds, which were distributed to farmers starting in early 1854. Letters from a number of farmers who tried growing (and sometimes eating or feeding) the seeds were published in next year's Report (published in 1855). Many other letters from farmers concerning soybean trials were received by the Agriculture Division of the Patent Office but never published - though they are still stored in the National Archives. Many of these reports from farmers contained the earliest date seen for the cultivation of soybeans in various U.S. states.

1853. Commodore Matthew Perry took a plant collector with him on his visit to Japan. Among the seeds brought back were one or two varieties of soybeans. This was a major step forward for American plant hunting.

1855. Michigan passed legislation providing for the establishment of the Michigan Agricultural College, the first agricultural college in the US. It was opened to students in 1857. Shortly thereafter similar agricultural colleges were opened in Pennsylvania, Maryland, then in many other states.

1862, May 15. President Abraham Lincoln signed the legislation which created the US Department of Agriculture, now 65 years after it had first been proposed and in the midst of the Civil War. Southern congressmen who had opposed it were now no longer in congress and the North, with many farmers gone to war, felt a new need for agencies to stimulate food production. Moreover, the expansion of public schools and agricultural colleges helped to overcome the long-time farmer prejudice against book knowledge. Isaac Newton, formerly Chief of the Agricultural Division of the Patent Office, was promoted to be first Commissioner, from 1862-67. The Department occupied six rooms in the basement of the Patent Office. That year a garden was obtained and crop tests were started. An agricultural library was also started and expanded in 1864. By 1897 the library had 59,000 books and pamphlets; by 1912 it had 122,000, and by 1925 it had 180,000 plus 3,300 periodicals. Today it is the famous National Agricultural Library at Beltsville, Maryland with more than one million books and 8,000 periodicals.

1862, July 2. President Lincoln approved the Morrill Land-Grant College Act. Tracts of land were given to the various states to start agricultural "Land-Grant" Colleges. Most states eventually developed two major colleges, an academic one and a land-grant agricultural one, with the word "state" before the word "college."

1863. About 1.2 million packets of seed and 26,000 bulbs, cuttings, and vines were distributed. In 1865 the Department moved into its own large brick building. In 1867 seed distribution was the main activity, accounting for 58% of the total budget. By 1877 2.3 million packets of seeds were being distributed.

1863. Kansas State Agricultural College was established as the first land-grant college under the provisions of the Morrill Act.

1875. The first State agricultural experiment station in the US was established in Middletown, Connecticut. Later the same year, the California Agricultural Experiment Station was founded at the University of California, Berkeley, by Eugene W. Hilgard. Cornell's experiment station was organized in 1879.

1887, March 2. The Hatch Experiment Station Act was approved by congress. Stimulated by the work of European experiment stations, it provided federal grants to the states for the creation of agricultural experiment stations and for agricultural research. Initially much of the funding for the state experiment stations, which were owned and controlled by the states, came from the federal government. The key idea behind the new policy and relationship was to use joint funding to elevate agriculture to a science and disseminate the findings to farmers. When the Hatch Act passed, experiment stations connected with land-grant colleges were operating in eight states, previously with only state funding. More or less systematic experiment work was being done in 13 other states. The experiment stations would play a key role in soybean production research and development. Most stations published periodic bulletins and annual reports.

1888. The Office of Experiment Stations was established under the provisions of the Hatch Act. Two key functions were to coordinate federal and state agricultural research and to publish important research done by the state experiment stations. By 1913 most publication was done by the state stations themselves. In 1942 the OES became part of the USDA Agricultural Research Administration.

1889. The USDA was raised to cabinet status. The former Commissioner became the Secretary of Agriculture and a member of the President's cabinet.

1897. James Wilson of Iowa served as Secretary of Agriculture through four terms in office, until 1913. He was instrumental in expanding the work on plant introduction and on general research concerning agricultural production.

1897. The Office of Seed and Plant Introduction was established with David Fairchild in charge. In 1898 the USDA started to introduce large numbers of soybean varieties. Previous to this there were not more than eight varieties in the US.

1901. The Bureau of Plant Industry was established to consolidate and expand the USDA's work on plants, with Mr. Beverly T. Galloway as its first chief. Galloway, for half a century a leading and popular figure in the Bureau, had worked with the USDA as a plant pathologist since 1887. The Bureau was formed by the consolidation of five divisions: Agrostology (forage plants and grasses), Vegetable Physiology and Pathology, Botany, Gardens and Grounds, and Pomology (Stevenson 1954). Both Charles V. Piper and William J. Morse worked in this Bureau.

1900. Arlington Farm was created by an Act of Congress so that the USDA might have field areas accessible to its offices. Containing about 400 acres, it was part of the 1,100-acre Arlington Estate, which also contained Arlington National Cemetery. Many of the early soybean field tests were conducted here. Located on the Virginia side of the Potomac River, the farm site is now occupied by the Pentagon.

1901. The Bureau of Chemistry was formed from the earlier Division of Chemistry, established in 1862. This Division later did many studies on soybean chemistry and nutrition.

1914. The Smith-Lever Act created the Cooperative Extension Service, which played a key role in disseminating information about soybeans to farmers and about soyfoods to rural homemakers. This act plus the Morrill Act and the Hatch Act provided for what is known as the Land-Grant College Complex, a pioneering system of rural education, research, and development, whose full significance is elucidated in Berry's provocative The Unsettling of America (1977).