AN ACCOUNT OF THE NATIONAL SEED DISTRIBUTION,
BY THE EX-CHIEF OF THE SEED DIVISION.
BY THE EX-CHIEF OF THE SEED DIVISION.
he world's prosperity is an abundant crop. A prime basis for a good crop is good seed. Good seed means vital seed, fixity of type, fecundity of product, and adaptiveness to locality.
The reliable seedsman should furnish the first three, and the grower must determine the most suitable locality by experience. Pure seeds are cheap at current prices, but imperfect ones are dear at any price. The primary object of the distribution of seeds by the Department of Agriculture to those engaged in agricultural pursuits, is to give increased value to production by the introduction and distribution of improved varieties that will increase the annual average yield of the staple crops of grain and vegetables, and more rapidly and more generally introduce the very best varieties of seeds into new states and territories, as well as into the older ones, where the annual average crop is being diminished by seeding with unselected and inferior seed.
The practice of securing selected seeds from foreign countries, and from localities in our own where, by careful selection, breeding and hybridization they attain their greatest perfection, and sending them to be used in less favored localities, is in full accord with the best attainable light on the subject. In the effort to improve a variety of wheat, for instance, the interests of the farmer, the miller, the baker and consumer are all to be considered.
The field for extensive inquiry is an ever enlarging one. To aid in this important work, the system of general distribution by the government was established, that the merits of well bred, fully ripened, perfect seed could be tested in different localities and soils, so that both the quality and quantity would be improved and increased.
The results attained justify the statement that in no department of the general government has the expenditure of so small an amount been productive of as much good as that expended in the introduction and dissemination of valuable seeds and plants. The constantly increasing number of requests for Department seeds is the best evidence that they are of value, and are needed.
When the people cease to be dependent for their existence upon the products of the soil, it will then be time to relax every effort which tends to increase those products. When the Department of Agriculture ceases its efforts in this direction, which the masses of the people have so unqualifiedly approved, and which have been so beneficial in promoting the public interests and the health and happiness of the American people, it will then be ample time to undo the beneficent action of the framers of the organic law creating the Department of Agriculture.
THE SEED AND PLANT DISTRIBUTION
During the administration of President John Quincy Adams, the consuls of the United States were instructed to procure and forward to the State Department such plants and seeds as they deemed most desirable for trial in this country. The first distribution of rare seeds and plants was made by Hon. Henry L. Ellsworth, the first Commissioner of Patents, after the re-organization of that office after I836, before any action had been taken by Congress. Many members, however, came to the aid of the Commissioner, and cheerfully tendered to him the use of the franking or free postage privileges accorded to them. Improved varieties of wheat, corn, etc., were sent out, and the benefits to agriculture were fully attested by numerous testimonials from all parts of the country.
In 1839 Congress appropriated 81,000, to be,taken from the Patent Office fund, “ for the purpose of collecting and distributing seeds, prosecuting agricultural investigations and procuring agricultural statistics."
In 1840 30,000 packages of seeds were distributed and statistics were compiled from the returns of the 6th census and other reliable sources. The annual appropriations from 1842 to 1854 barely exceeded $5,500. In 1848 the quantity of seeds distributed amounted to 75,000 packages. In 1854 the annual appropriation for the distribution of seeds and cuttings was increased to $35,000 and the amount has since been increased from time to time, until it is now $100,000, which is an amount by no means proportionate to the increase in the number of people now engaged in agricultural pursuits.
On the 15th of May, 1862, the act establishing the Department of Agriculture became a law, and President Lincoln appointed Hon. Isaac Newton as the first Commissioner.
In 1863 the number of packages of seeds distributed was 1,200,000, and of bulbs, vines and cuttings 25,750. It is a noticeable fact that the administration of the first Commissioner has been the only one during which a distribution of plants, shrubs, vines and cuttings was systematically carried on, the average distribution amounting in the three years following to 37,000 packages annually.
During the commissionership of Hon. Horace Capron, a special distribution of seeds to “meteorlogical observers" was made, instead of the distribution of plants, and the same was continued during the administration of Hon. Frederick Watts. In 1877, when Hon. William G. LeDuc was appointed Commissioner, the distribution to the “meteorological observers" was discontinued and one to “ Grangers and special farmers" was instituted in its stead.
Upon the accession of Commissioner Loring to the office, the distribution to the “ Grangers and special farmers" was cut off, and that to Senators, Representatives and delegates in Congress proportionately increased.
When Hon. Norman J. Colman was appointed Commissioner, the quantity to members of Congress was continued and slightly increased, as was the miscellaneous distribution ,and a special distribution was made by him to “ Experiment Stations and Agricultural Colleges" and to “Agricultural Societies."
The following tabular statement shows the kinds and quantities of seed issued from the seed division of the Department of Agriculture, under the general appropriation act of Congress, from July 1, 1888, to June 30, 1889. (Link to the document.)
The average weight of the seeds distributed through the mail by the Department of Agriculture each year, for the last five years, ending with June 30th 1888, was 400,000 lbs., or 200 tons. The official, clerical and working force required to carry on this work aggregates about one hundred persons, of whom about ninety per cent are laborers employed by the day.
VALUE OF THE SEED AND PLANT DISTRIBUTION TO THE COUNTRY
The following, taken from the annual reports of the Commissioners to the President, indicates the value of the distribution.
The first Commissioner (Newton, 1863) says: “ The dissemination of sorghum and imphee seed has been worth millions of dollars to the country."
The second Commissioner (Capron, 1868) says: “The result of a single importation of wheat has alone been worth more than an annual appropriation for the whole Department. If but a tenth of the seed distributed is judiciously used, the advantage to the country may be tenfold greater than the annual appropriation for Agriculture."
In 1870, J. R. Dodge, Statistician and Editor of the Department reports at that time, says : “While the cost of the seed distribution in 1869 was but half a dollar for each thousand of the people, there is reliable evidence that a single specimen of grain in one of the thirty-seven states has realized in enhanced production ten times the amount expended for all seeds sent to all the states that year."
The third Commissioner (Watts, 1871) says : “ The increased production of wheat, oats and grasses by reason of the distribution of new and improved seeds, pays more than ten times the whole amount expended by the Government in this Department, and such is the appreciation of this by the farmers of the country that the demands upon us are increasing to a degree beyond our ability to supply."
The fourth Commissioner (Le Duc, 1878) says: “ The increased production per acre by the Excelsior White Schonen oats some years since was 2.5 bushels per acre, and a like increase is reported from a distribution of the Board of Trade oats in the northern and the Rust Proof in the southern part of the country during the past two years. But the average increased yield fairly attributable in like period to improved varieties of seed would amount to forty million bushels, now worth 5151000000. Taking the last three years as compared with the three previous years the increase was two bushels per acre. This in forty millions acreage yearly would be eighty millions of bushels increase, or a gain to the country (at present prices) of about $80,000,000 per annum."
A prominent agricultural writer in speaking of the benefit of the “seed distribution" says: “ A great deal of good has been done by the Department of Agriculture. The introduction of the sorghum plant is a noticeable example, for the value of the crop, according to the census of 1880 was $1 r,000,000. Scores of varieties of most excellent seeds have been put within the reach of the masses of the people."
Maj. R. L. Ragland, of Virginia, says : " The beneficial results arising from the introduction of the Fultz wheat, sent out by the Department has, every year since its dissemination, more than paid the whole cost of the Department. A crop of Fultz grown by me the third year from seed originally received from the Department gave twenty per cent. in yield over the old varieties, and sold for a profit of $561 over what could have been realized from the old kinds.”
Maj. Henry E. Alvord, then Director of the Houghton Farm Experiment Station, in a report to the Department dated May 4th 1886, says ; “The seeds received this season, as a whole, for the first time in my experience with the Department, answers the definition of new and useful."
Professor E. H. Jenkins, Vice Director of the Connecticut Experiment Station says; “The seeds have been of good quality, not more failures than we expect from those of our seedsmen."
Dr. C. A. Goessmann, Director of the Massachusetts Experiment Station at Amherst says: “The seeds have been of good quality, and in several instances of particular interest to our locality."
The following extracts from letters received at the Department in 1887 from the few of the many recipients of seeds, are but a fair sample from the hundreds received each year :
" When I compare the vegetables that are now in our market with the market of forty years ago, there is a marked difference, and I believe the distribution of seeds by the Government has been a potent factor in making the change." “We have found all seeds sent to us from your Department exceptionally clean and of good germinating qualities." "All seeds received from the Department have germinated well, and proved true to description. I consider the distribution of great value to this country, as it places new and desirable varieties in the hands of people in different localities." "The garden seeds received from you compare favorably with those received from our best seedsmen, and possess the advantage of being more certain to germinate." “I am confident that the system of distribution by the Department of Agriculture has not only introduced many new and valuable varieties, but has been the means of improving standard seeds." “After thirty five years experience as gardener in Louisiana, these seeds are the best that I have ever planted, and give the most satisfactory results."
A great number of valuable economic plants and varieties of fruits have also been distributed, and successfully grown in localities to which they were adapted. The most notable instance, perhaps, is that of the introduction of the Bahia, or, as it is now generally known, Washington Navel orange, into This is now conceded to be the best variety produced in the United States. Its introduction is said to have been worth, to California alone, more than all the Department of Agriculture has ever cost the country California.
METHOD OF PURCHASING SEEDS.
Prior to March 7th, 1889, when Hon. J. M. Rusk, Secretary of Agriculture, assumed the duties of that office, the method of purchasing seeds was that of receiving bids from responsible seed growers and seed firms, who were required to give a guarantee that the seeds furnished would not only be true to name and of good germinating quality, but also cleaned with extra care so as to be free from weed seeds or eggs or larvae of injurious insects.
Since September, 1885, all seeds received by the Department, are tested not only in a seed tester, but in the plant propagating houses, and when necessary, by either the entomologist or botanist. If the guarantee is not verified they are promptly rejected.
The average germination of allseeds accepted has been 93 per cent. When, however, the percentage in those varieties which are somewhat difficult approximates 75 to 85 per cent., the seed is regarded as being of sufficient value to warrant its purchase and distribution. In the test of flower seeds, the percentage usually ranges somewhat lower.
The present method of purchasing seeds which is undoubtedly an improvement over the former method, is that of employing a special purchasing agent, whose duty it is to visit personally different sections of country, and inspect, as far as possible, the product of which seeds are offered to theDepartment, and to look up such as seem to possess specially desirable characteristics.
The seed-testing apparatus now in use, which is often called the “Geneva tester,” consists of two heavy block-tin pans, 17 inches in length by 12 in width and 2 3/4" in depth. These pans are painted inside and out. Two and one-eighth inches from the bottoms of the pans, a ledge half an inch in width is soldered to the sides. It is upon these that the ends of the brass rods rest which support the V-shaped pockets which reach nearly to the bottoms of the pans.
The brass wires, No. 9 size, are each 11 3/4 inches in length. To make the pockets, take two strips of unbleached thin muslin, each 10 1/2 by 2 1/4 inches, and turn a hem 7/16 of an inch on each ; then stitch the two pieces together 11/4 inches from the unhemmed edge. The supporting rods are passed through the hems and project half an inch beyond the ends of the pockets. The bottoms of the pans are covered to the depth of half an inch or more with water, so that the lower edges of the pockets come in contact with it and the seed is kept moist by means of capillary attraction.
The seeds to be tested, numbering 25, 50 or 100, are placed within the muslin trough and moistened, and each pan is then placed near the window and each is covered with a heavy pane of glass. The date the test is begun and closed is carefully noted, as well as the per cent. of the seeds that have germinated.
For use on the farm, for determining the vitality of corn, grass, clover and other seeds, any comparatively shallow pan will answer the purpose, provided the depth of the pockets is diminished, as the ends of the rods can rest on the sides of the pan, and an ordinary pane of glass can be used as a cover to retain the proper degree of heat and moisture.
By this method, the proper degree of ventilation will be given, and the side ledges two and one eighth inches from the bottom of the pan can be dispensed with. If the pan is supplied with water, the plants will continue to grow, and the pockets, through which the roots will have penetrated, can, after the wires are withdrawn, be subdivided with a pair of scissors, and the plants be transplanted with the pieces of cloth, and their growth will thereafter be rapid and continuous it the season and the necessary conditions are at all favorable.
By this method, not only can the purchase of worthless seeds be obviated, but if already purchased, the proper amount of grass and other seeds to sow to the acre may be definitely determined, even though one quarter or third of the seed possesses no vitality whatever.
METHODS OF DISTRIBUTION.
The present method of distributing the seeds is clearly indicated in the tabulated statement of the 1888~9 distribution. The question as to the best method has been a vexed one with each successive Commissioner of Agriculture since the Department was established. Commissioner Newton, in his fifth annual report, of 1866, suggested that if members of congress would set apart a considerable portion of their quota now distributed to individuals, to be divided among the state, county and local agricultural and horticultural societies, they would reach those who would more fully appreciate the seed, and make it to the interest of the farmers to connect themselves with such organizations.
In line with the previous suggestion, I find on page 213 of the Department report for I873, the following: “ A plan adopted by an agricultural society in Tennessee is a very good one and worthy of imitation by communities as well as by other societies of a similar character; that is, of requiring every member who receives seeds for experimental purposes from the Department, to return to the society at least as much as the quantity received if experiments turn out favorably. In addition to having the seeds of valuable varieties on hand for seasonable distribution, the advantages of gradual adaptation are gained."
Another plan suggested is that of having each congressman who resides in an agricultural district select six or twelve intelligent farmers, and divide his quota of field seeds equally between them, with the agreement on their part, that after the second year‘s crop is harvested, one-half of it shall be sold, at the prevailing market price of such product, to farmers and planters who reside within the counties composing the congressional district, and that a record of such sales, giving the name and post office address of the buyer, shall be sent to the Secretary of Agriculture, that it may be entered upon the records of the Department.
The method that has been suggested of making each experiment station a seed distributing centre for the state does not seem to be a feasible one, as it would necessarily interfere too much with their special lines of work, as well as be a more expensive method than the present one.
The Seed Division, as now conducted, is not a mere seed warehouse. It is something more. The annual reports which have emanated from it since I884 indicate this. They teem with interesting facts that are of practical value. They show what new varieties of seeds have been distributed and the results effected. The question as to what seeds are best adapted to different localities, even in the same latitude, but affected by various altitudes, winds and ocean currents, is becoming one of no small importance, and points to the practical benefit of judicious care in the selection of seeds to be planted, and great watchfulness as to results.
We are distinctively and pre-eminently a nation of farmers, inasmuch as not less than 44per cent. of the entire population is engaged in rural pursuits.
General Washington and the presidents who immediately succeeded him in the early history of our Country urged upon both houses of congress the importance of placing agriculture as well as commerce immediately under the fostering care of the government.
Will not the people‘s representatives recognize the fact that our welfare as a nation depends largely upon the better development of American agriculture? In the solution of the agricultural problems which are of so much importance in a country extending through so wide a range of latitude, a climate so diversified, and with agricultural interests the greatest in the world, the Department of Agriculture must ever be an important factor.
WM. M. KING.