When Iowa State University was established in 1858 it was as the Iowa Agricultural College and Model Farm. The name alone sent a clear message that the school’s founders wanted the students who attended Iowa State to have a strong understanding of and practical education in farming. Of course, the students didn’t all want to be farmers, but that’s a different story.
In the early years, the male students were required to spend several hours each day helping out on the school’s farm and in the shops, while the female students were assigned to help with domestic chores in the kitchens and laundry. There was no tuition at Iowa State at the time, so perhaps it seemed like a fair trade. Within 20 years, the practice of requiring students to work on campus became impractical due to the complexities of organizing and supervising a workforce of hundreds of students.
By the early 20th century, the Iowa Agricultural College and Model Farm had become the Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts and had grown to become a highly respected agricultural and engineering school. Students in agriculture still gained practical experience working with livestock, understanding how to maximize crop yields, and learning the business principles of farming. However, faculty still felt that the experience of the agriculture students could still be improved.
In 1938, Dr. William Murray, professor of economics, identified that his students had no real experience in actually managing a farm. He set out to change this. Murray convinced the college administration to purchase a farm and to provide a budget for the first year of farm operations. He argued that the cost of operation should not be high—if the students apply what they learned in class then the farm should be profitable.
The college administration agreed to the proposal and purchased a 187-acre farm just south of campus in the fall of 1942. The first formal Agriculture 450 class was offered in January 1943 with Murray as instructor. In March, the farm was turned over to the management of the students with the only limitation being that each expenditure and sale be approved in advance by the instructor. The farm has been in the care of students ever since.
Students in the AgEds 450 course (as it is now called) are responsible for every major decision that happens on the farm. As of 2018, the students farm around 1400 acres of land, some of which is rented or custom farmed. They are responsible for determining which crops to plant, caring for the livestock, purchasing equipment, and marketing the animals and grain that they raise. According to the Ag 450 Farm website this farm remains “…the ONLY completely student managed farm at a land grant university in the United States.”
If you are interested in taking a deeper dive into the history of the Ag 450 Farm, feel free to visit Special Collections and University Archives. The Ag 450 Farm records contain account books, photographs, scrapbooks, clippings, and more documenting the history of the Ag 450 course and the farm itself. Stop in and take a look!