Seaman Knapp’s legacy goes far beyond the building named after him on LSU’s campus. Through demonstration farms he set up in southwestern Louisiana, Knapp pioneered a system for teaching farmers about modern, research-based techniques, laying the groundwork for Cooperative Extension as it is known today.
Knapp was born in 1833 and grew up on his family’s farm in New York. He studied liberal arts in college and became an instructor and administrator at the Fort Edward Collegiate Institute in New York. In 1866, Knapp moved to a farm in Iowa and worked as a pastor and head of the Iowa State School for the Blind.
Knapp suffered an injury and infection that bound him to a wheelchair for eight years. He spent his time reading and became absorbed by agricultural research. An educator at heart, Knapp was interested in how to best train farmers in modern, more effective techniques. In 1876, Knapp began writing articles and giving speeches about progressive methods he tested on his farm, where he raised sheep and pigs.
Knapp’s work led him to Iowa State College of Agriculture in 1879, where he was a professor and set up the first demonstration farm. Inspired by the experiments conducted on the campus farm, Knapp pushed for a bill — later called the Hatch Act of 1887 — that provides federal dollars to create agricultural experiment stations at land-grant colleges.
In the mid-1880s, Knapp relocated to Louisiana. He bought 160 acres of land in southwestern Louisiana, where he founded the town of Vinton. Local farmers relied on traditional methods and tools, offering Knapp a laboratory to test his theories and modernize agriculture in the area. He introduced farmers to upland rice and encouraged them to use the more efficient techniques he developed.
However, many farmers were reluctant to change their ways. Some of those who did struggled with their crops, became discouraged and moved away.
Knapp, a firm believer in agricultural demonstration, convinced some friends from Iowa to move to Louisiana, establish model farms and help local growers with problems they encountered in the fields. They became the first agriculture extension agents. The rice crop flourished and became the successful major crop it still is today in southwestern Louisiana.
Knapp took this model with him to Texas in the early 1900s, where the boll weevil was wreaking havoc on cotton. Through demonstration, he taught farmers how to protect their crop against the insects and introduced them to alternative crops such as corn and peas.
In 1909, Michigan Congressman James McLaughlin proposed a bill that would give states money to administer extension services like those Knapp modeled through landgrant colleges. There was no role for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in McLaughlin’s bill, which caused debate and eventually the bill’s failure. Knapp died two years later.
This was the Progressive Era, however, and just about every industry was looking for ways to modernize using scientific research.
Three years after Knapp’s death, Sen. Hoke Smith of Georgia and Rep. Frank Lever of South Carolina introduced legislation that partnered the USDA with land-grant universities, creating the Cooperative Extension Service. The federal government appropriates funds matched by states to provide practical, research-based information on agriculture and home economics through county-level extension agents. The Smith-Lever Act became law on May 8, 1914.
(This article was published in the spring 2014 issues of Louisiana Agriculture.)