On June 6, 2013, forty six members of PSPA and their guests visited the USDA Agricultural Research Service’s Eastern Regional Research Center (ERRC) in Wyndmoor PA for a field trip. The ERRC is a thriving state-of-the-art agricultural research center as well as a National Historic Chemical Landmark for research in the 1950’s that led to the processes used today by companies all over the world to convert fresh potatoes into potato flakes used in Pringles potato chips, potato bread, instant potato mixes, and countless other food products. PSPA members and ERRC employees heard an overview of the research center by Center Director Sevim Erhan and then were treated to a mesmerizing presentation by Bettsy Mosimann on the origins of PSPA and its connections with the founding of the ERRC in 1940. After a tasty box lunch from Rollers in Chestnut Hill, PSPA members were guided to labs and pilot plants where ERRC scientists and engineers explained their award-winning research on keeping our food supply safe from bacterial pathogens, on new value-added dairy products, on leather research achievements from past to present, on research to make sustainable biofuels and biobased products, and on sustainable production of crops with low fertilizer inputs.
Mosimann Explains Society’s Role in Center’s Founding
The Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture was founded in 1785, which means we are older than the U.S. Constitution, signed in 1787. Today our mission is to “generate a productive dialogue among [our] members and the agricultural community at large, as well as the general public, so that we may obtain a better understanding of the best land-use policies and food systems and disseminate this information in support of sustainable world food production.” Essentially, our mission hasn’t changed much since the eighteenth century–find the best practices and spread the word.
The idea of an agricultural society originated, like everything else in Philadelphia, with Benjamin Franklin, who in 1743 founded the American Philosophical Society for the purpose of promoting useful knowledge through research. Farmers in America were in need of useful knowledge because they had misused the abundance of fertile lands, and by the time of the founding of the nation there was already a farm problem with worn-out soil. On the continent, particularly in England, there was an Agricultural Revolution, and the word of the day was “scientific agriculture,” which meant crop rotation, careful breeding and increased use of livestock, use of manure and other soil enrichers like gypsum and clover.
The catalyst for the organization of the Society came from John Beale Bordley who had been judge of the British Admiralty Court in Maryland and who owned extensive lands on Wye Island. Switching from tobacco to wheat, he conducted carefully controlled experiments and was known for his high yields. On his frequent visits to Philadelphia, he met with members of the Philosophical Society’s agriculture committee and convinced them of the need of an agricultural society that would promote better farming practices. Many of the twenty-three men who came together on February 11, 1785 were prominent in the founding of the nation—the secretary of the Continental Congress, signers of the Declaration of Independence, officers of Continental Army, soon-to-be members of the Constitutional Convention, men who would be Congressmen and Senators, the first treasurer of the United States, the Secretary of the Continental Board of War, Richard Peters (whose family owned Belmont and who was to write the classic work on plaister of paris), the foremost physician of the day, Benjamin Rush, and Samuel Powel, the last mayor of Philadelphia under British rule and its first American mayor.
The focus was to be on research and experimentation and the passing on of this information through the printed word, using newspapers of the day. Premiums (gold or silver medals) were offered as encouragement for the best written account of a method or experiment. The first went to George Morgan, a member who had anonymously sent in an account of a barnyard and an explanation of how to store and ferment manure. (We are still working on the best methods to store manure.)
Then there was the ten-mile rule. In order to become a resident member, you had to live within ten miles of Philadelphia. That is why George Washington became an honorary member in July 1785 (he doesn’t become president until 1789). Washington loved farming. He owned extensive lands on which he conducted experiments. When ordering plows and other implements, he would alter the designs with specifications suited for his own particular needs. Although Washington perhaps only attended one meeting, he was an active member through his correspondence. He extended the Society’s influence internationally when he began a correspondence with Arthur Young, the foremost agricultural writer in England. Young worked to get the Board of Agriculture in England established and encouraged Washington to found one in the United States. Washington, himself, wrote: “Nothing in my opinion would contribute more to the welfare of these States than the proper management of our lands.” In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture credits the Society for “planting the seed” of its own existence.
The practical hands-on farmers of early America were suspicious of these elite educated gentlemen and doubted their expertise. But the Society persisted in their attempts to widen their influence by promoting agricultural fairs, exhibitions, and plowing matches. While the Society published widely, and these publications are valued today by scholars of agriculture and economics, the Society was most successful in founding other agricultural societies. They were directly involved with the founding of Penn State, which began in 1855 as the Farmers High School. And although membership was waning in 1884 when the Veterinary School at the University of Pennsylvania was founded, Benjamin Rush and other Society members had been working on organizing veterinary medicine since early part of the century.
In 1888, with few members remaining and feeling that the Society had had its day, its books, manuscripts, and portraits were given to the care of the University of Pennsylvania. Like a phoenix, the Society rose again in 1909, when Leonard Pearson, the third dean of the Veterinary School discovered the collections and contacted the remaining members. The key to the recovery was the veterinary faculty and graduates who were working with the dairy farmers on diseases of dairy cattle, notably bovine tuberculosis and Bang’s disease. Society membership in the first half of the twentieth century numbered many in the dairy industry, including Henry Jeffers of Walker-Gordon in New Jersey, the largest certified milk farm.
Many in the Society were also horse-racing enthusiasts. While George Widener owned thoroughbred race horses, Edward Stotesbury was famous for breeding trotters at his forty-acre Winoga Stock Farm. He joined the Society in 1912, the year he married his second wife. In 1918 he sold his horses, perhaps because of the expense, for he was building several large houses for his new wife. Other say he may have sold them as a patriotic gesture in response to the war, because he converted the land to food production.
This was not a wise thing to do because one bad outcome of the war was the creation of a surplus of farm products. With the rise in use of nitrogen fertilizers, the development of hybrid seeds, the invention of machines like the combine, the increased use of the tractor, came a startling increase in yield per acre. More was being produced with less labor, which led to increase in unemployment. With autos and tractors replacing horses, lots of food was left over.
Agriculture in the first half of the twentieth century was a key industry–what farmers used was central to the economy. The unemployment in agriculture is credited with being one cause of the Great Depression. A solution to the agricultural depression or the “farm problem” came from two men from Ada, Ohio. The first was William J. Hale, who was born in Ada in 1876 and went on to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard. He then taught at the University of Michigan where he met and married his student, Helen Dow, Herbert Dow’s daughter, and became key in the development of Dow Research Labs. This was one of the benefits of WWI–the development of the profession of chemistry in the United States. Before the War, America was dependent on Germany for the chemicals necessary for manufacturing, and when the U.S. entered the conflict, these supplies were cut off. Looking to the future, Hale saw foreign imports as not good value economically. We could learn to grown our own raw materials, he argued, and he wrote an article that described farming, as “simply organic chemical manufacture.” No one was anxious to publish the article, but then someone suggested he send it to Henry Ford. Ford, himself, was a farm boy who would soon turn to soybean research and would eventually make an entire car from them. He was happy to see that Hale’s article got published in the Dearborn Independent in October 1926. It sold 500,000 copies.
Wheeler McMillen, born in Ada, Ohio, in 1893, also published an article in October 1926. He talked about need for wider markets for farm goods and extended his discussion in another article in January 1927 entitled “Wanted Machines to Eat up our Crop Surplus.” McMillen had been working on this problem since 1922 when he went to New York to work as Associate Editor at Farm & Fireside. Not well-educated, but a voracious reader who was a magnet for facts, McMillen had an engaging personality. He was not just good at writing, he could produce substantive texts written in simple language, and he always found a better way of doing things. He was getting letters of distress from the farmers when he heard the President of the Chamber of Commerce, who was an exporter of wheat, lament –”Unfortunately, the human stomach isn’t elastic.” Since “the plants farmers were [already] growing contained chemical components—cellulose, starch…proteins, fats and oils—[and] industry was already making use of these,” McMillen reasoned, with research maybe they could do more.
While Wheeler McMillen was anti-government, he believed that scientific research is one of the extremely few activities, other than police work, in which the government has any proper business.” He believed there was “no wrong in channeling some federal funds into farmers pockets,” since “for decades farmers . . . by cheap food [had been] subsidiz[ing] the growth of cities.” McMillen went to Washington. He talked to the Secretary of Agriculture and then to Herbert Hoover at the Department of Commerce who agreed to allocate $50,000 for research. Then he asked an Undersecretary at the Department of Agriculture—what is your biggest unsolved problem, and the man answered, the cause of peach yellows.
Hale, who was looking for raw materials, and McMillen, who was looking for non-food uses for farm products, joined forces, along with Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and George Washington Carver, who had already discovered value of soybean and two hundred uses for peanuts.
While he was encouraging research into industrial uses of farm products, McMillen realized that to profit from the increase in yields, a farmer needed to have more capital, and this would necessitate a move to larger farms. In 1929 prior to the stock market crash, he wrote and published Too Many Farmers, in which he predicted the large commercial farming of the future. As we move into the 1930s, we hear McMillen arguing that if we could find more industrial uses for farm produce, we could restore the economic health of the country and become self-sufficient. In addition, this which would be a protection should we ever enter another war–but “we would never want to enter another war.”
The farm problem becomes a political issue particularly under the New Deal, which some call a form of communism because farmers are paid not to plant and excess livestock is destroyed. The rhetoric becomes quite heated, and the issue becomes part of Republican platform. In 1934 William Hale publishes The Farm Chemurgic and the movement acquires a name, The Chemurgy Movement. The following year Ford, Hale, McMillen, and Francis Garvan, president of The Chemical Foundation, organize the First Dearborn Conference of Agriculture, Industry and Science. The sponsors include the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Grange, and the National Agriculture Conference. On the first day, “underneath the Tower of the replica of Independence Hall,” with a band playing “Stars and Stripes Forever,” attendees signed the “Declaration of Dependence upon the Soil and of the Right of Self-Maintenance: “When in the course of the life of a Nation, its people become neglectful of the laws of nature and of nature’s God, so that their very existence is put in peril, necessity impels them to turn to the soil in order to recover the right of self-maintenance.
Present were Henry and Edison Ford, Ire̒ne̒e duPont, Charles Stine (director of the research organization at duPont who convinced duPont of the necessity of fundamental research), George Washington Carver, Hale representing Dow, the American Chemical Society, George Eastman of Eastman Kodak, representatives from the American Chemical Society, and a professor from the University of Michigan speaking for the American Petroleum Industry.
Charles Herty, president of the American Chemical Society, spoke on the advances in use of slash pine and the good quality of paper it produces. The talk from a representative of the Chemical Foundation was balanced—the power alcohol industry must be able to support itself, and even if “the entire output of agricultural products” was used to produce power alcohol, the demand for fuel would not be met. Perhaps, he suggested, corn might not be most economical product to use. More attention needs to be paid to the Jerusalem artichoke (which today is considered too expensive because of the cost to dig it out of the ground). Despite the assertion from Chemical Foundation’s speaker that road tests had proven the good performance of power alcohol, especially the anti-knock effect, a professor from the University of Michigan testified for the American Petroleum Industry that power alcohol is impractical. He referenced tests that contradicted the Chemical Foundation’s findings. But other speakers referenced the dubious and dishonest practices of the oil industry who often performed rigged demonstrations for the public. Standard Oil was actually selling a blend in Europe, whose qualities it promoted, but was talking against its qualities in the United States. Following the close of the conference, Chemical Foundation funded the establishment of a power alcohol factory in Atchison, Kansas, called the Agrol Company, and Nebraska had already exempted agricultural alcohol from the gas tax. In the late 1930s, there were two thousand stations in the mid-west selling power alcohol, but Agrol closed after a little more than a year because of the trouble they had getting corn. Although the government was selling surplus corn at reduced prices, it would not sell low to Agrol. A USDA report recommended that the industry should not be funded.
Looking toward the future, conference members organized The National Farm Chemurgic Council and began the support of additional conferences, some regional, through the 1970s. Wheeler McMillen would soon become president and would continue as president or Chair for twenty-five years.
A Southern Chemurgic Council conference was held the following year in Mississippi, and Senator Theodore Bilbo, the relatively new Senator from Mississippi attended. Senator Bilbo is not a man you want to be indebted to. He was a white supremacist, a member of the Klu Klux Klan, and he was noted for his skill in moving money around under the table. But he was excited by what he heard at the conference and came back swearing to the people of Mississippi that he would work for solution to cotton problem. When he was told that he couldn’t pass a bill in the Senate that would only benefit his state, he introduced a bill for four regional laboratories, to be funded at $1 million annually. Word came from above that $100,000 would be sufficient, but when the bill was printed up, the $100,000 was marked for prepatory survey funds, with the $1 million annual funding retained. Bilbo quickly maneuvered the signing and funding of the bill. And so—here we are.
In 1938 a wealthy Society member passed away—Edward Stotesbury, the banker and a one-time champion breeder of trotting horses. He was said to have been worth $100,000, 000 before the stock market crash. But it was said that his Philadelphia residence, Whitemarsh Hall, cost $1 million a year to maintain, and he also had large houses in Florida and in Maine. When he died, his worth was down to $4 million, well maybe actually $10 million.
Things needed to be sold and his wife’s son was married for a time to Doris Duke, and the Dukes were friends of FDR. Not surprising that Percy Wells writes in his autobiography: “word had come from the White House about the availability of the 32 acre Winoga Stock Farm.” [I have to thank your Statistician John Phillips for the Stokesbury/Duke connection to FDR, and thanks to him and to Wendy Kramer, your librarian, as well, for the wonderful slides of Winoga and the construction of the Eastern Lab there.]
Why Philadelphia? It was near farming communities, especially dairy farmers and milk was one of the products that the Eastern Lab was to find uses for; it was near transportation; it needed to be accessible to an agricultural experiment station, but not on a Land-Grant campus; and it needed to have laboratory professionals available in the area.
Percy Wells served as the director of the Eastern Regional Research Center from its founding in 1939 until 1969. In 1967 the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture presented awarded Wells its medal, recognizing him as a distinguished leader of research on utilization of farm products. His speech at the awards banquet, “Is Agricultural Research Worth the Price?,” demonstrated a positive financial return on the funds devoted to agricultural research. Wells was not the first from this center to receive a Society medal. In 1960 the Society awarded a medal to its Secretary R. Henry Morris III, who was a special assistant to Percy Wells. Morris was a chemical engineer and a pioneer in developing and promoting commercial uses for agricultural products. Prior to coming to the Eastern Regional Center, he had helped develop rayon manufacture markets for duPont in Europe. The Regional Centers were charged, not only to develop new uses for farm products, but also to assist in the commercialization of these products. In looking at Society records, we can see Morris networking through the Society, working on contacts to promote products and at the same time bringing new members into the Society. Society archives record Morris reporting to Wells on a visit to Seabrook Farms when that company acquired Minute Maid’s Snow Crop division. Seabrook was interested in the development of fruit essences and concentrates, as well as the potato flakes and vegetable chips. Shortly after, Jack Seabrook and Frank App, Seabrook’s research director, joined the Society.
The Society also awarded Wheeler McMillen a medal in 1960 for being an “untiring advocate of research to find new uses for farm crops.” McMillen, then president of the Society, had been a member for many years. He had become editor of Farm Journal, the largest national farm magazine in 1939. The Pew family who owned Sun Oil acquired the magazine in 1935, McMillen thought to resist the New Deal sentiment. Joseph Pew was a political boss of consequence in Pennsylvania. The Pews wanted visibility, and McMillen was everywhere. He sat for many years on the Executive Committee of the Boy Scouts with the heads of large corporations–Thomas Watson of IBM, Marshall Field, Amory Houghton of Corning, Justice Owen Roberts, Ezra Benson, the Firestones, and Eisenhower when he was president of Columbia. In the 1940s he was asked to run for governor of New Jersey and as Senator from New Jersey. It was even suggested that he might become a presidential candidate. Despite his notoriety, he was always foremost an agricultural journalist. When he spoke before the Society in 1959, his talk was so full of valuable statistics and Morris sent copies around to USDA staff.
When the Regional Laboratories were established in 1939, Henry Wallace, the Secretary of Agriculture at the time, and soon to be Vice-President of the United States, was not particularly thrilled with their founding. But he spoke thus at the opening of the Northern Lab in Peoria, Illinois: “If we expect fantastic dreams to be realized we will be disappointed, but if patient we will find helpful results.”