Historical Sketch

1792: The Society is Incorporated

The Massachusetts Society for Promoting Agriculture (M.S.P.A.), one of the earliest agricultural societies in the United States, was incorporated in 1792. Among the founding members were Samuel Adams (who hosted the first meeting), Charles Bulfinch, Timothy Pickering, Benjamin Lincoln, Christopher Gore, and Benjamin Guild. These were presently joined by the likes of John Adams (the MSPA president from 1805 to 1813), John Hancock, Robert Treat Paine, Elbridge Gerry, Artemas Ward, Josiah Quincy, and other national figures from Massachusetts.

The M.S.P.A.'s raison d'etre

The Society's raison d'etre as stated in their petition for incorporation was to join the ranks of the agricultural societies in Britain and America "whose particular business is to make experiments themselves and invite others thereto on the subject of agriculture... [and] to give handsome premiums to the men of enterprise who have by their inquiries made useful discoveries and communicated them to the public." Although the methods have differed somewhat over the years, the Society has never strayed from this original intention of encouraging agricultural pursuits and experiments designed to advance agricultural technology and disseminate information.

The first premiums are awarded

The first premiums (prizes) offered by the M.S.P.A. were $50 for "the most satisfactory account of the natural history of the canker-worm" and $100 for the cheapest and most effective method of eradicating it. Premiums were also offered for the cultivation of wheat and other grains; the improvement of land, including the reclamation of salt marshes; the raising of trees; the greatest stock maintained on the least land; the best vegetable food for wintering stock; the most and best wool from a given number of sheep; the best process for making cider, maple sugar, butter, cheese, flax, and salted provisions; and for the best farm journals, manures, tree plantations, advances in ploughs and ploughing techniques, and farms in general. In 1801, the Society voted to establish a professorship of natural history at Harvard, which served as the origin of the Botanical Garden at Cambridge. In 1813, the M.S.P.A. began publishing semi-annually the Massachusetts Agricultural Journal, which was discontinued in 1827 when the publication of various weekly farming journals supplanted the need for a semi-annual one.

The Cattle Show and annual dinners

The year 1816 marked the first Cattle Show sponsored by the Society on their grounds in Brighton designated for that purpose. The Cattle Shows, which ran until 1835, were accompanied by an M.S.P.A. annual dinner, at which it was the custom to propose numerous toasts to members and guests, to the delight and amusement of all present. Among the guests in 1832 were the renowned ornithologist John James Audubon and Johann G. Spurzheim, the co-founder of phrenology. The toasts were as follows: "Our scientific countryman, John James Audubon: The flight of the eagle is not beyond his reach, nor the tenants of the poultry yard beneath his notice"; and "Our honored guest, Dr. Spurzheim: He reveals to us the secret import of our ‘bumps’; we greet him with a bumper."

Activities from 1835

After 1835, the Society directed more effort at introducing into America improved breeds of cattle, sheep, and horses. They also voted many scholarships and grants to the State Agricultural College (now the University of Massachusetts) and other educational institutions, funded research in animal diseases such as bovine tuberculosis, and supported the Cambridge Botanical Garden and the Arnold Arboretum among many such horticultural stations. At the same time, they continued to offer premiums for the finest examples of farm products and techniques, and became involved in the many county and local agricultural societies and fairs that formed in the nineteenth century, mainly through offering prizes and prize monies to them.

Involvement with youth organizations

Throughout the 200 years of Society history one thread appears: its involvement with Organizations including the 4-H clubs to encourage Massachusetts youth to take an active interest in farming. Memorials, cash prizes and scholarships were dispensed to promote interest in the agricultural projects of the youth.

Supporting scientific research

In the middle of the Twentieth century the Society turned toward supporting basic scientific research. The trustees have looked with favor on small requests that are interesting, imaginative and even somewhat risky in their potential for results. In other words, "seed" money. Because such ideas require drive to bring them to fruition, requiring a matching grant will sometimes improve the chances of success, in addition to making it a larger overall grant. In addition, because of a long and close relationship with the University of Massachusetts, specific requirements were created for handling grants to that institution.

A wide range of projects are supported

There is a very long list of scientific, technical and mechanical projects that have been supported in the last 70 years. Fighting pollution, milk research, eradicating poultry disease, wildlife research, forestry studies, integrated pest management, apple and cranberry management, livestock research, are but a few of the areas that the Society has supported with funding.

Members are involved in land preservation

Since 1950 Massachusetts Agriculture has been threatened by the creation of huge western farms and international agriculture. With that has come the risk to the State of loosing open space to suburban growth. Since World War II over 2 million acres have gone out of production and with that has come a conspicuous movement to save the land. Members of the Society have helped lead the fight in the legislature to make that happen.

The importance of Horticulture

More recently, in addition to supporting Farm to School projects, publications guiding institutions for preparation of locally grown produce, mobile poultry processing, and providing aid to immigrant farmers who are helping to reassert local agriculture’s place in Massachusetts, the Society is recognizing the importance of the role of Horticulture in the fabric of Massachusetts agriculture. Working closely with the Agricultural Extension Service, the Society has been able to contribute to the study of flowers, fruits, vegetables, aquaculture, and livestock.

A collection of historical items

Over the years, there has arisen a very large accumulation of important items tracing the history of agriculture in Massachusetts. Many of those items reside in the Wenham Historical Association building, in a room created just for such a purpose. In addition, the Massachusetts Historical Society is the trustee of a great deal of the earliest history of the Society, starting in 1792.

An important purpose – then and now

"Very great and important advantages may arise to the community from instituting a Society for the purpose of promoting agriculture" said the Charter of the Society in 1792 and that the "said Society is for the purpose of promoting useful improvements in Agriculture." These words still ring true.

As was said early in the history of the Society "the Trustees know the toil it takes to feed our population, and they offer support to any who will make the job easier."