Experiential farming at its best
The December issue of Discover Maine magazine focuses on Aroostook and Northern Penobscot Counties. There is a great article by Charles Francis giving the reader a look at the founding of Aroostook Farm.
The article is reprinted in the MPB newsletter by permission.
Maine is an agricultural state. The first settlers came to what would become the state of Maine less for fishing and timber than for farming. Today timber is the economic backbone of Maine. In the nineteenth century, however, agriculture was the mainstay of the state’s economy. Recognizing this fact, in the late 1800s and early 1900s the state and federal governments took steps to provide scientific and technical support to Maine’s farmers. Out of this came the Maine Agricultural Experiment Station on the campus of the University of Maine and the first two of the state’s experimental farms, Highmore in Monmouth and Aroostook in Presque Isle. From its earliest days, Aroostook Farm has served the farmers of not just Aroostook County but the state and nation, with research into everything from potato blight to how best to plant oats, to fight pests. The story of the founding of Aroostook Farm is one of the most intriguing stories in Maine because, had it not been for the farsighted and dedicated residents of Aroostook County, the farm might never have come into existence.
The story of Aroostook Farm actually begins almost fifteen years before the Civil War when Dr. Ezekiel Holmes, one of the early pioneers in Maine in applying science to agriculture and the first secretary of the Board of Agriculture, called for the establishment of an experimental farm in Aroostook County. It would not be until 1913 that Holmes’ call would be heeded, however. Prior to that the Maine Agricultural Experiment Station and Highmore Farm would be established.
The Maine Agricultural Experiment Station grew out of a fertilizer control research facility on the campus of the University of Maine. In 1888 the federal Hatch Act charged the research station with “the investigation of [all] agricultural problems, [including] original experiments.” Within a decade the need for other experimental stations or farms to meet the needs of the state’s diverse soil types and particular regional problems became apparent. Out of this came Highmore and Aroostook farms. In 1909 the state legislature provided funds that purchased two hundred and twenty-five acres in Monmouth to “conduct scientific investigations in orcharding, corn, and other farm crops.” Then, in 1913, the legislature appropriated ten thousand dollars to purchase a farm in Aroostook County. Even then, however, Aroostook Farm might not have been established had it not been for the residents of Presque Isle and Houlton, the most notable of whom was John Watson, and the timely intervention of the Bangor and Aroostook Railroad.
The committee that was charged with purchasing the farm felt that ten thousand dollars were inadequate for acquiring a suitable site. It, therefore, sought local financial support and with
in a short period of time, an additional ten thousand dollars was raised and two hundred and seventy-five acres were purchased on the Westfield Road in Pr Presque Isle. The additional ten thousand dollars were raised primarily through the efforts of men like John Watson. John Watson was one of the most substantial businessmen in Houlton at the turn of the nineteenth century. He owned the John Watson Company, which dealt in hardware and farm implements, nine starch factories scattered about the county, as well as a prosperous farm. In addition, he was a director of the First National Bank and the Bangor and Aroostook Railroad. Watson had come to Houlton from Andover, New Brunswick when he was twenty, literally penniless and knowing no one in the area. Watson’s success is attributed to his work ethic and his willingness to innovate. An example of this is seen in his own farming methods. For some years before the establishment of Aroostook farm, Watson had maintained a working relationship with the Maine Agent Station. For example, in 1907 and 1908 he had taken part in a modified culture experiment which led to planting seed potatoes in lower ridge rows. The object of the experiment was to see if certain types of planters and weeders, such as the Robbins, were better suited for the modified ridges than the more traditional high ridge system. The experiment was closely controlled and monitored. Previously unplanted acreage was used and there were check plots using the traditional high ridge method for comparative purposes. The modified ridge plots produced three times the number of potatoes in 1908 as the high ridge plots. John Watson, then, clearly saw the advantages to be gained from controlled research into farming and crop management. For this reason, he was a strong supporter of the establishment of an experimental farm in Aroostook County and was one of the major contributors of the additional money that was raised to purchase the farm in Presque Isle.
Even with the acquisition of the land for Aroostook Farm things did not go smoothly. The house and barn on the farm had been destroyed some years earlier by fire. Even though a new barn with a spacious cement basement for potato storage had been built, there was no farmhouse to provide living quarters for a superintendent. Again local financial support was sought and again it was forthcoming. By the end of 1913, an additional three thousand dollars had been raised to build a farmhouse. In 1914 there was a fine new dwelling on Aroostook Farm to house a superintendent.
The next problem was funding for the planting of the first research acreage. The legislature, which had promised an appropriation for carrying out experimental work in 1913, did not live up to its commitment. At this point, the Bangor and Aroostook Railroad comes through with a one-time contribution of twenty-five hundred dollars for carrying out research in 1914. The railroad saw that if Aroostook County benefited from Aroostook Farm, it would benefit in turn. And, of course, the fact that John Watson was one of the Bangor and Aroostook directors was a factor in itself.
The first crops tested for suitability to Aroostook soil at Aroostook Farm came from Highmore Farm. Over fifteen varieties of oats, as well as various types of hill seed potatoes from Highmore, were tested using various methods of applying fertilizer.
The establishment of Aroostook Farm brought about increased activity by the United States Department of Agriculture in Aroostook County. The federal Department of Agriculture first used twelve acres at Aroostook Farm for testing various seed potatoes. In addition, four farms in diverse sections of Aroostook County became federal test sites for the chemical effects of potato diseases. One of them was the farm of John Watson.
In May of 1927, Silas Hanson was hired as superintendent of Aroostook Farm. Hanson came from Minnesota, where he had worked at the experimental station in St. Paul. Hanson had been hired because of his experience in a region of the country whose climate and soil types were similar to that of Aroostook County.
With the appointment of Silas Hanson as superintendent, the first period in the development of Aroostook Farm came to a close. Today Aroostook Farm is part of a growing number of facilities operated by the Maine Agricultural and Forest Experiment Station of the University of Maine.