FARMERS INSTITUTES were modeled on the teachers institute in order to carry agricultural knowledge to farmers. The idea was broached as early as 1853, but the first genuine example of an institute was held at Yale under the direction of Samuel William Johnson, an agricultural chemist, in 1860. The Civil War postponed further progress until the late 1860s, and, by 1870, many state farm organizations made some provision for lecturers to hold meetings of farmers. The classic form of the farmers institute took shape during the 1880s. By 1885, the plan was systematized and state appropriations granted for carrying it out; by 1889, the movement was in full swing.
At that time, W. O. Atwater, federal director of agricultural experiment stations, hailed the institute as a refinement of the work that had previously been done haphazardly by agricultural boards, colleges, societies, clubs, conventions, and experiment stations. Atwater viewed the institute as the best device thus far tried for carrying agricultural knowledge to farmers. Farm periodicals, agricultural colleges, and especially the agricultural experiment stations were steadily bringing advanced farming techniques to light. Local farmers institutes soon emerged to convey this material directly to practicing farmers. Sponsored by a county agricultural society, county grange, or farmers club, farmers institutes were directed by state lecturers and attended by leading local farmers. The programs were commonly arranged for a two-day meeting in winter. Organizers advertised the meetings widely; many of the entertainment features common to granges and county fairs—music, dramatics, declamations—were employed to add interest; and good storytellers among the lecture staff were featured. Farm problems were discussed in the light of the most recent scientific research. Discussion of household economy and the "domestic sciences" were added for the special benefit of farm women. Political partisanship was shunned, but questions of public policy affecting agriculture received attention. The attendance of farmers at the institutes held in the several states sometimes numbered as high as 4 million.
While agricultural science continued to play a vital role in the twentieth century, the farmers institutes themselves were soon incorporated into the widened municipal sphere of the Progressive Movement. With the promotion of agricultural extension on a national scale through both state and federal appropriations—which began about 1914 after the passage of the Smith- Lever Act—farmers institutes of the older type had their functions gradually absorbed by the newer agricultural extension activity.
Scott, Roy Vernon. The Reluctant Farmer: The Rise of Agricultural Extension to 1914. Urbana, Ill.; London: University of Illinois Press, 1970).