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Wisconsin celebrates centennial of the Smith-Hughes Act

Wisconsin State Farmer

BEAVER DAM - When a farmer selects a dairy cow mating, welds a broken piece of equipment or completes a financial statement, he or she can probably identify the basic skills learned in high school vocational agriculture for completing these tasks.

David Laatsch, a retired Beaver Dam sgriculture teacher,  completed an updated version of a book on the centennial of the Smith-Hughes Vocational Act of 1917. The act established vocational agriculture programs in high schools, raised American agriculture to a world stage and prepared  people for a new century of progress.

According to David Laatsch, former Beaver Dam High School Agriculture teacher, “The Smith-Hughes Act of 1917 established Vocational Agriculture programs in high schools, raised American Agriculture to a world stage and prepared our people for a new century of progress.”

As part of the Centennial Celebration of the Smith-Hughes Act, Laatsch recently completed the updated edition of “A History of Vocational Agriculture in Wisconsin.” The book was originally authored in 1976 by Floyd Doering, State FFA Advisor, from 1972 until 1988. The edition is collaborated with Brenda Scheil, agriculture teacher at New Auburn High School and numerous other agriculture teachers.

An old photo shows a gathering of vocational agricultural instructors at a convention.

Laatsch explains, “The book pays tribute to those the dedicated educators that established agriculture education, identifies the accomplishments of students, recognizes those who support the program, and gives insight into the future of the discipline.”

Activities and events conducted by teachers and students throughout this year will highlight accomplishments of the program in preparing students for career success and leadership in the agricultural industry.

Chapter FFA awards banquets across the state will focus on local achievements while this summer’s State FFA Convention and the Wisconsin Association of Agriculture Educator’s Professional Development Conferences will recognize successes of the agriculture program over the past 100 years.

“We want the public to be aware of how their investment in agriculture education returns dividends to the state and local community and makes students employable in 21st century careers,” said Laatsch.

The legislation is named for two legislators from Georgia that introduce the bill into Congress, Senator Hoke Smith, a powerful politician and Congressman Dudley Hughes, a farmer and agricultural leader. The book details how Wisconsin educators led the way in the implementation of the federal legislation and continues to be the leader in adapting innovative curriculum to the needs of the industry.

“Wisconsin was an early leader in the development of vocational education. In 1899, the state legislature appointed Dr. L.D. Harvey, State Superintendent of Schools to investigate and report on the application of vocational education in this and other states as well as other countries. His report leaned heavily on the U.W. Farm Short Course and the German vocational schools,” Laatsch said. “His report in 1901 revealed the inadequacies of our schools in preparing a farmer for his life’s work at a time when most people were farmers. As a result the legislature authorized the establishment of up to 10 county agricultural high schools. Marathon, Dunn, Marinette, Winnebago, La Crosse, Racine and Milwaukee schools were established. The curriculum offered at these school, became the foundation of Smith-Hughes Vocational Agriculture programs across the nation.”

The Smith-Hughes Act established state boards of vocational education to coordinate the new programs and it provided federal funds for operating agriculture programs in the high schools.

Early ag teachers had the challenge of convincing farmers that attending high school was important for their sons. Farmers would rather have the boys stay on the farm and provide labor.

“The greatest challenge for early ag teachers was convincing farmers that it was important for their sons to attend high school, before it was compulsory, when they would have preferred their boys to stay on the farm and provide valuable labor, Laatsch said. "The ag teacher worked closely with country schools and often helped to establish 4-H Clubs (under the Smith-Lever Act) to encourage students to attend high school.”

During World War II, farm boy graduates of Smith-Hughes agriculture classes, enlisted in the military or stayed on their farms to produce food for the soldiers and the world. Nearly half of the agriculture teachers in the state, resigned from their schools in order to join the service. Ag teachers expanded class enrollment by offering agriculture classes to girls.

The Smith-Hughes Act never excluded girls from taking ag classes, but FFA membership was strictly for boys. Because of the shortage of certified agriculture teachers, military deferred agriculture college graduates were assigned to teach as their civilian duty.

Laatsch noted, “After the war, Vocational Agriculture teachers took on the additional role as educator for returning veterans under the GI Bill and adult farmers. These adult students added “baby boomers” to the high school class rosters a decade later.”

During the 1960’s, mechanization in agriculture brought about a consolidation of farms and thus the number of farm boys available to enroll in high school vocational agriculture programs began to decline. To address the need for more trained workers in the agricultural industry, the curriculum adapted by including horticulture and agribusiness classes. Wisconsin FFA members supported a constitutional change that admitted girls to full membership in the organization in 1969.

Agricultural education has always included the application of math, science and other disciplines. The Smith-Hughes Act of 1917 prepared people for progress in agriculture.

“When I started teaching in Beaver Dam in 1976, about 15 percent of my student enrollment was female. By the time I retired from teaching, over 60 percent of the agriculture enrollment was female,” Laatsch said. “Agriculture education has always included the application of mathematics, science and other disciplines. Today, many ag programs in Wisconsin offer courses that provide credit for core subjects."

“From the very beginning, vocational agriculture has been all about ‘learning by doing.’ To perfect the skills that are necessary for career success, FFA members have competed in skills contests, leadership and speaking contests," said Laatsch. "Being able to record the history of the Smith-Hughes Vocational Act in Wisconsin in one book has been a humbling experience because so many have given so much to the betterment of agricultural industry.”

“I hope that this project will allow teachers, students, boards of education, legislators and the community members to reference these accomplishments and set goals for the next century,” added Laatsch.

Laatsch encourages everyone to attend a local FFA event, learn about agricultural education in the community, lend support to the program and join in the celebration of the Smith-Hughes Centennial.

Copies of “A History of Vocational Agriculture in Wisconsin” are available from the Wisconsin Association of Agricultural Educators (WAAE) P O Box 935; East Troy, WI 53120 262-470-8369 or on line at