Short Teaching Module: Agricultural Knowledge in the Late Nineteenth Century

Justus Hillebrand
Clip from Wolff's article on hay's nutritional values


Knowledge knows no national boundaries. Therefore, the history of knowledge also has to move beyond national boundaries to understand how knowledge was produced, moved, and adapted. Telling such a history without the limitations of national boundaries is challenging. To avoid telling a history too broad to be understood and to truly make a point, historians of knowledge often trace one particular area of knowledge or one specific innovation. This then provides the frame for the analysis of the wider historical processes of knowledge production, negotiation, and movement. This module uses sources from Germany, the United States, and Togo to explore the movement and negotiation of agricultural knowledge in the late nineteenth century. 


Knowledge is not just science. Everybody knows something and experts can come from the most varied corners of society. For a few decades now, historians of science have also understood this and have broadened their horizon of study to a history of knowledge more broadly understood. The fundamental insight in this process is that scientific practice, as with any knowledge production, is situated in time and space. While scientists may have claimed their knowledge was objective and universal, they could never escape their subjective skins and particular environments. In this way, historians of science have opened their perspective to all manners of knowledge making and all kinds of knowledge makers. Indigenous knowledge, the know-how of craftspeople, and farmers’ knowledge have taken their place next to science in historical analysis. (Secord, 2004)

Looking beyond the bounds of science also means that the significant moment in knowledge production is no longer seen as necessarily the moment of “discovery” but rather what happened after. Rather than assuming that freshly “discovered” knowledge “diffuses” into the vague mass of the public, the negotiation of knowledge takes center stage. How could different knowledge makers come to an agreement on what was new, useful, and reliable knowledge? (Daston and Galison, 2014)

One example of knowledge negotiation is agricultural knowledge in the late nineteenth century. Several groups of agricultural knowledge makers interacted, particularly in the United States and Germany, arguably the two centers of agricultural innovation. Agricultural scientists produced knowledge removed from market pressures in university laboratories and experiment stations. They rose to prominence in mid-century by claiming chemical analysis, mathematics, and carefully measured feeding experiments could produce universal and therefore superior knowledge to that of practicing farmers. Opposing them were innovation-minded farm improvers who had earlier held much authority over farming knowledge. Improvers argued that the results of any innovation trials had to be placed into particular environmental and economic contexts so they could be adapted by skillful farmers in different contexts. One farmer’s profit was evidence enough to them. In improvers’ minds, universal principles developed by “book farmers” were largely useless since they were not produced on active farms under market conditions. To scientists, trial success measured in money by one uneducated “dirt farmer” made only one flimsy data point. Scientists and improvers used different evidence, language, and communication strategies to bolster their own side and discredit opposing claims. Scientists tried to convince farmers of laboratory-won insights, while innovation-minded farmers adapted experimental results from elsewhere to their region or farm.

In the 1850s, American and German agricultural scientists were still the new kids on the farming block. Their relevance depended on improvers using their new ideas, such as ideal rations. This innovation was a result of early research in nutrition. Scientists determined the nutritional supply of feed by chemical analysis and the nutritional demand of livestock by feeding experiment. The result was a recipe for a nutritionally most-efficient ration expressed in chemical components, such as proteins and carbohydrates, rather than in terms of particular feeds, such as oats or hay. Farmers only had to assemble ideal rations by a rather complex calculation from locally available and low-cost feeds. 

The German agricultural scientist Emil Wolff was a trailblazer in summarizing this research and communicating it to improvers. To target an improver audience, from the 1850s to the 1870s he transformed his pedagogical strategies of translating ideal rations to farmers in a German farm almanac (Mentzel und v. Lengerke’s Landwirthschaftlicher Hülfs- und Schreibkalender) rather than a scientific monograph. He moved from translating scientists’ ideal rations into improvers’ easy-to-use hay values (which equated the weight of all feeds to weight in hay), to calculating ideal sample rations and describing particular profitable feeding trials for improvers to adapt, and arrived finally at explaining the complex calculation of ideal rations. Over these decades and beyond, his initial translations s won over enough improvers who were versed in some scientific reading to demonstrate the validity of scientific claims and how to adapt them. Still, there needed to be compromise. At a meeting of the German Farmers and Foresters (Versammlung deutscher Land- und Forstwirthe) in 1865, one improver noted the proven profitability of scientific feeding, but criticized its complexity. Improvers were ready to agree with scientists that universal principles were true – they also did not have the chemical expertise to challenge their results – but that their usefulness still depended on the skillful and especially economic adaptation in place performed by improvers. Turning principles into profit on farms was improvers’ expertise, which scientists could not challenge from their ivory towers in universities and experiment stations.

Just as knowledge production was historically contingent, so was its communication and negotiation. People adapted knowledge in the shape of matter, words, and practices to new local contexts around the globe. Knowledge needed to be malleable and mutable to be understood and useful to different people in different places. Some historians of science understand this as the “circulation” of knowledge. Others criticize this concept as suggesting too much free flow when in fact directionalities and obstacles between languages, classes of society, and geographies abounded. (Gänger, 2017; Raj, 2010)

During their virtually obligatory studies at German universities and experiment stations, American agricultural scientists took home the almanac Wolff had published in to communicate his translations of ideal rations. In the 1870s and 1880s, American scientists such as Wilbur Olin Atwater, Samuel Johnson, and Henry Prentiss Armsby used the almanac to convince farmers of scientific feeding. But when Atwater at a meeting of Maine farmers in 1874 assumed that the almanac’s German evidence of profitability was universally true, his improver audience disagreed and pointed out that German environmental and economic conditions did not apply in America. For example, the hot American summers dried out hay faster than farmers could harvest it, which was not a problem in Germany.

By contrast, in late 1873 Samuel Johnson was able to convince a meeting of the Connecticut board of agriculture of the benefits of scientific feeding. He admitted freely that the almanac’s German evidence was only relevant in Germany, but that the underlying principles could be adapted to American conditions. Feeds available in Germany could be substituted for feeds available in Connecticut and, should the attendees approve the first American agricultural experiment station, German methods of chemical analysis would provide specific evidence of American feeds. Henry Prentiss Armsby built on the American feed analyses produced by the experiment station Johnson’s audience had authorized. In the first American textbook for scientific feeding, published in 1880, Armsby integrated American feed analyses with the German data from the almanac in the same table. Through several interventions, American agricultural scientists had moved knowledge of livestock feeds from Germany to the United States. 

Agricultural knowledge did not just involve products grown locally, but also those that were part of imperial networks. One example is palm kernel meal, a byproduct of palm oil production, which centered in industrial oil mills in German harbor cities such as Hamburg and Bremen. This meal was part of a group of industrial byproduct cattle feeds promoted by German agricultural scientists, improvers, and the agents transporting, processing, and selling these feeds. Their consensus on the usefulness of this feed was also founded on the standardized quality of this industrial byproduct. 

Improvers and less innovation-minded farmers did not know this product grown and processed far away by unfamiliar means. Chemical analysis allowed sellers of industrial byproduct feeds to guarantee nutritional content. Should the product deviate from this guarantee, however, farmers and scientists alike would accuse them of adulteration. As a result, German agricultural scientists urged market agents to improve the sorting and cleaning of oil palm kernels in oil mills, and to push African farmers to do more thorough work removing the adulterating hard kernel shells. In the colonies, however, leaving part of the shell on saved labor and increased the weight of kernels. Colonized farmers could shortweight European traders. Adulterating crops for the oil and feed industry was a strategy of colonized farmers to resist the devaluation of their labor, thus using their knowledge of agricultural processes to their own advantage. 

Knowledge history makes clear how knowledge moved and changed between different groups of people and places. By shifting the focus of analysis from the “discovery” to the negotiation of knowledge, histories of knowledge complicate national histories of scientific heroes and emphasize the role of all kinds of knowledge makers in many places. The result is more than just how new knowledge changed the world but also how the world changed knowledge in every place anew.

Primary Sources

Wolff’s justification for omitting hay values

Clip from Wolff's article on hay's nutritional values

In 1864, for the first time, Emil Wolff did not include hay values alongside nutritional components in the data tables published annually in the calendar. In this accompanying article, Wolff reframed his previous translation into hay values as merely educational. The contrast between the hay values and the nutritional values had been intended to transition farmers to the correct system of nutritional values. Instead of hay values, Wolff added columns for the nutritional values of phosphoric acid and calcium oxide, minerals which scientists could now detect in chemical analysis and found to be important in nutrition. Scientific complexity replaced ease of use. He explained this decision as the result of the complexity that scientific research had found in the subject of animal nutrition. Improvements in chemical analysis and new experimental findings about nutrient digestibility, especially in certain nutrient combinations, made the compromise of single equivalent values between feeds impossible. He essentially told improvers that scientists’ knowledge had superseded theirs irreversibly. 

His description that “intelligent” farmers had adopted his scientific feeding method was less a description of reality but an implicit threat. If farmers rejected scientific feeding, they were backward and stubborn conservatives of yesteryear. Scientists frequently identified farmers who used their suggested methods as intelligent, progressive, turned towards the future. Using scientific methods became a form of distinction. If farmers decided to use scientific methods and could even afford to do so, they were better than their neighbors who did not. 

In truth, however, few “intelligent” farmers had yet transitioned when Wolff proclaimed it a fait accompli in 1864. His statement was more a strategy to claim authority than a description of fact. It expressed scientists’ worldview in which only science could provide the answers improvers needed. When Wolff proclaimed the hay values a thing of the past, the improver editor of the calendar, Oscar Mentzel, included them right underneath Wolff’s tables at least until 1869. He anticipated the demands of his audience. It was a slower and more contested transition than Wolff made it out to be. 

This source is part of the teaching module on agricultural knowledge in the late nineteenth century.

Togo farm families cracking oil palm kernels

Picture of families in Togo cracking oil palm kernels

This photo was part of a short photo series documenting palm oil production in the German colonies in Africa, included in a report by a special oil commission of the German Colonial Society (Deutsche Kolonialgesellschaft) in 1913. The subtitle reads “Cracking of palm kernels by women and children in Togo.” The work of native farmers or laborers started the journey of palm oil and kernels to European consumers. This source suggests that agricultural knowledge and innovation could be found in many places. It can also show how the knowledge negotiation amongst consumers of colonial products was intertwined with the relations, negotiations, and resistance between colonizers and the colonized.

This source is part of the teaching module on agricultural knowledge in the late nineteenth century

Ideal ration recipe

Picture of Stephen Robinson Parson's notebook where he recorded an ideal ration

This is one page out of a notebook kept by Stephen Robinson Parsons, a somewhat improvement-minded farmer in South Paris, Maine. Around 1896, Stephen copied into his fact book an ideal ration: 

Ration for one day for animal weighing 1000 lbs
    16 lbs    meadow hay
    8    “       bran
    2    “     O[ld]. P[rocess]. [linseed] oil meal
    6    “     corn meal

The formatting of this little copied text hinted at its origin. It had found its way to Stephen from one of the standard feeding manuals of the day, probably through one of the farm journals to which he subscribed. First published in 1883, Elliott W. Stewart’s “Feeding Animals: A Practical Work upon the Laws of Animal Growth” had become a widely respected work on animal feeding from an improver’s perspective. Several other publications (including this one) quoted his sample rations, usually endorsed by dairymen’s associations. In Maine, it was assigned as a textbook at the State College along with Henry Prentiss Armsby’s “Manual of Cattle Feeding.” It included several sample ideal rations which Stewart had adapted from the productive rations of a Thomas Horsfall of England, who published in the 1850s and 1860s. Stewart used the methods of American and German scientists, including Armsby and Emil Wolff, to recalculate these rations to include American feedstuffs. However, Stewart’s ideal ration was not immediately useful to Stephen. Underneath it, he noted the conversion of the ingredients from weight to volume, pounds to quarts, rounded “for feeding purposes.” As in previous experiments, Stephen seems to have used a measuring cup rather than a scale when assembling the rations for his cows. It made measuring easier and faster. This document demonstrates how asking the question of where a particular piece of knowledge came from can reveal the adaptations made by multiple actors in the translation chain from laboratory to barn and from Germany and England to the United States. Also, this tracing of knowledge emphasizes the advantage of fully indexed digital source archives, such as HathiTrust, which allowed the identification of the origins and part of the lineage of Parsons note of an ideal ration.

This source is part of the teaching module on agricultural knowledge in the late nineteenth century


Daston, Lorraine, and Peter Galison. Objectivity. New York: Zone Books, 2014.

Gänger, Stefanie. “Circulation: Reflections on Circularity, Entity, and Liquidity in the Language of Global History.” Journal of Global History 12, no. 3 (November 2017): 303–18.

Raj, Kapil. Relocating Modern Science: Circulation and the Construction of Knowledge in South Asia and Europe, 1650-1900. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

Secord, James A. “Knowledge in Transit.” Isis 95, no. 4 (2004): 654–72.


Justus Hillebrand is an independent scholar as well as a research consultant and database designer for Digital History Consulting, Inc. He received his Ph.D. in History from the University of Maine in co-tutelage with the University of Cologne, Germany, in 2021. Currently, he is working to expand his dissertation “To Know the Land with Hands and Minds: Negotiating Agricultural Knowledge in Late-Nineteenth-Century New England and Westphalia” to a full-length book and to help historians understand and utilize databases as foundational to transformative digital research.

How to Cite This Source

"Short Teaching Module: Agricultural Knowledge in the Late Nineteenth Century," in World History Commons, https://worldhistorycommons.org/short-teaching-module-agricultural-knowledge-late-nineteenth-century [accessed February 22, 2024]