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Life as an early county ag agent

A century ago on November 1, 1912, my father, Alfred Carlsted, began his work as Swift County’s first County Agricultural Agent. The young farmer from Dassel, Minnesota, who had recently graduated from the School of Agriculture, University of Minnesota, was selected as one of the first ten agents to serve Minnesota counties. These early county agents were under the umbrella of the University Extension Service and the U. S. Department of Agriculture, and were funded locally by county commissioners. The West Central Development Association and other promotional organizations were closely allied with this movement to improve agriculture production, along with the uplifting of farm life. Local school agriculture departments and their teachers also served a vital function in the work of agriculture development and education for both young and old. A detailed account of my father’s work is on file at the Swift County History Museum.

The emerging Minnesota Extension Service with its county agriculture agent outreach system is well described in the December 6, 1913 edition of The Farmer.  An inspection of Swift County Monitor editions from November 1, 1912 to August 1, 1915, reveals much about County Agent Carlsted’s work and challenges. His front page articles were published under the heading “Farm Development”.  He was also in demand as a featured speaker at forums of all kinds.  The basic idea behind the movement was to perfect a local system that could disseminate the latest knowledge that was being developed at Land Grant agriculture research institutions like the University of Minnesota at St. Paul and the Morris area branch. The movement was not universally accepted by all county residents and leaders. I will leave that research to your own doing.

The first order of business was to find county agent Carlsted an office and a car to get him around the county on his many farm visits and meetings.  His office was on the top floor of the new Court House, now a part of the county court system.  His car was a Ford Model T Coup.  Transportation could be a challenge because of the poor roads.  The Benson Automobile Club would help to change all that as they lobbied for improved roads during the emerging auto age.  Each township even had a “Road Overseer”.  My grandfather, Frank Johnson, a prominent Torning farmer, served that function for a time.  Carlsted also used the extensive rail network available in those days.

An early task for Agent Carlsted was to help form a support organization for the new movement.  Thus was born the “Farmers Bureau” (Monitor – Jan. 10, 1913).  The organization would go on to become affiliated with the Minnesota and American Farm Bureau Federation.  County Agent Carlsted was its first secretary.  He believed it to be the second or third unit  formed in the state.  He had a life-long devotion to the Farm Bureau.  For his work, he and mother were granted honorary life membership in 1966.

County Agent Carlsted’s accomplishments were many. The famous 1914 Corn & Alfalfa Exposition at Benson required cooperation between the West Central Development Association, other Benson area promotional organizations, and the county agent. A cup trophy on display at the Swift County History Museum was won by the Torning Farmers Club for having the largest number of exhibitors at the event.  The Exposition was a big deal.  Many visitors came from the Twin Cities by train to see the event and listen to experts as they presented information on farming and rural life.  A similar event had been held at Morris in 1913.  The West Central  Agriculture School and Experiment Station was also a major advocate for rural development in the area as well as a source of support for area county agents. It was also an important secondary school for many area residents.  Seminars and short courses were held there.

The introduction of alfalfa in the county was a major accomplishment.  It was becoming obvious that wheat-on-wheat, year after year, was no longer sustainable.  Other crops needed to be brought into the cropping mix.  He was able to secure a supply of the rather expensive seed at reduced cost. The new crop was controversial at the time but would soon come to be recognized as the premier forage for cattle.  Dairy herd improvement in the county followed alfalfa introduction.  With the cooperation of the Benson Automobile Club, Carlsted traveled to Wisconsin and Illinois to purchase Holstein stock to be sold in the county to upgrade local herds. He also helped organize the cooperative creameries at Murdock and Holloway.

All of these new county agents would agree that improving corn production in Minnesota was a high priority.  Based on his experiences on the home farm at Dassel, he was considered an expert in the production of Minnesota 13 open pollinated corn.  Unlike hybrid corn varieties common today, Minnesota 13 required careful seed selection, drying, and germination testing.  Seed selection needed to be done in the fall to assure an adequate supply of seed for next year’s crop.  Some entrepreneurial spirited famers even got into the business of selling high quality seed to neighbors and others.

Swift County participated in the 1913 Minnesota Boys’ and Girls’ Club (later to become 4-H Clubs) Acre Yield Corn Contest.  Swift County had one of the highest number of participants.  Some of the area participants and prize winners may be familiar to you:  Edwin Erdahl, J. O’Connor, Oscar Fredrick, Arthur Ulstad, Floyd Nelson, (all from Benson), Philip & Edgar Larson (Murdock), Joseph McCarney (DeGraff), Edwin Petranek and Guy & John Terril (Danvers), George R. Perrin & Robert Hallen (Kerkhoven), Adelbert Clapp, Roy, Joe, & Archie Sturm, Elmer & Otto Rosenkranz, Paul Granholz & Oscar Olson (all from Appleton).

Adelbert Clapp from Appleton won the top prize of $25 for a yield of 78 bushels.  Prizes were donated by F. L. Stone, Kerkoven Town & Country Club, Benson Commercial Club, and the Minnesota State Bankers Association.  A complete listing of participants and yields can be found under “Alfred Carlsted – Early Years In Agriculture” at the Swift County History Museum.It is obvious that corn production and seed selection and testing was an important hook to get young and old involved in the extension movement for the betterment of rural living.

Two other efforts were equally important: the Boys’ and Girls’ Club movement and the Farmers’ Clubs. I have already touched on the Boys’& Girls’ Clubs relating to the corn yield contest.  There were 17 charter members of the Swift County Club.  Berger Johnson of Appleton was President, John O’Connor of Benson – Vice-President-Central, Eric Streed of Milan – Vice President-West, and Philip Larson of Murdock – Vice President-East.  Edward Petranek of Danvers was Secretary, and Ernest Lysen of Benson was Treasurer. A complete listing of the charter members can be found at the History Museum.

What were the Farmers’ Clubs all about?  The Clubs were a way to bring isolated farm families together for fellowship and information dissemination about agriculture and rural living topics of the day.  Entertainment and refreshments were provided.  Most meetings were held in rural schools and at area farm homes. The movement even had a Constitution and a suggested agenda for meetings.  These details can also be found at the History Museum.

Much more could be written, but I will leave it at that, except to say that the county agents were expected to deal with a wide range of other issues from spraying apple trees to whatever. Hog cholera was a major problem of the era and the county agents were right in the middle of finding solutions to the problem.

Oh yes, one other important fact. County agent Carlsted met and married my mother, Edith Johnson, the oldest daughter of pioneer farmers, Frank and Alma Johnson of Torning Township, Section 21. Frank and Alma were charter members of the Swedish (now Trinity) Lutheran Church. Frank, who died in 1926, was the last surviving charter member.

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