One hundred years ago, in 1912, the River Falls Normal school began teaching agriculture and this year officials at what is now the university’s College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences (CAFES) will celebrate the progress they have made in helping Wisconsin’s agricultural education programs become the envy of the rest of the country.  The yearlong observances and activities kicked off last Thursday with the naming of Dean Gagnon, longtime lead agricultural education consultant at the Department of Public Instruction in Madison, as CAFES 2012 Distinguished Wisconsin Agriculturist. Gagnon is the newest recipient of the award which was first presented in 1970 to Donald McDowell, a longtime vocational agriculture instructor and former Wisconsin Agriculture Secretary from 1950 to 1969.  The event was part of the rededication of the Agricultural Wall of Fame at CAFES.

     CAFES current dean, Dr. Dale Gallenberg, traced the history of the school since it started in 1874 as the fourth Normal School in the state to its current status as a College within the university.  He told the crowd of mostly former honorees of the college that, “basically we were a teaching school that taught teachers and it stayed that way for about the first 30 or 40 years.”

     In about 1911, Gallenberg added, the Wisconsin legislature was pressured by some at the River Falls Normal school and others to include specialty teachers like agriculture instructors since agriculture was such a big enterprise in western Wisconsin.  He added, “it was not without a struggle with the powers in Madison, but through some hard work of area legislators and school officials, we were authorized by the state Regents to add agriculture to our curriculum in 1912.”  That started the school, Gallenberg said, on its way from being just a department to a division to a school and finally to a college of its own.

     The first classes in 1912 were structured for what a high school agriculture teacher would need to know.  The classes ranged from agricultural mechanics, basics of livestock and crop production and other subjects appropriate for a high school program.  In fact, Gallenberg added, “for the first 50 years of the school’s existence, all they taught was agricultural education as the training of teachers was the school’s mission.  Gallenberg was quick to add that agricultural education is still part of the core mission at CAFES even though many other programs and majors have been added to the program at the college. 

     The first agriculture instructor at the River Falls Normal school was Winthrop Welles and since the first agriculture classes were held in September, 1912, students have flocked to the campus.  That first class had 40 students and the student population has grown ever since.

    Unfortunately, Gallenberg told us, “because some of the early records are not complete, there is no way to get an accurate count of how many agriculture instructors got their training over the past 100 years at River Falls.”   He did estimate that, over the years, 55 to 60 percent of the high school ag teachers in Wisconsin and 30 to 40 percent of their counterparts in Minnesota got their college training at CAFES or its predecessor school at River Falls. He then added proudly, “if you multiply those numbers by 50 or 100 years, a lot of high school ag programs have their roots back here in River Falls.”

    University and college officials at River Falls will celebrate their accomplishments of the past 100 years with programs and observances throughout 2012 but their focus is on the future.  Recently, Gallenberg said, the faculty senate approved three primary goals for the school’s strategic plan and they fit the mission of CAFES very well. The first goal he said concerns academic excellence and distinction since he said, “we certainly believe we have a number of programs that are distinct and excellent compared to our peers.”  The second goal revolves around international education and engagement.  The dean pointed out that CAFES has a long history with its faculty and staff of international involvement and education.  The third goal approved by the faculty senate involves innovation and partnerships, something Gallenberg said CAFES has been doing for a long time.  “We have a long history of working with industry and employers and have been engaged far outside the walls of the campus,” he added.

      Celebrating the centennial of agriculture instruction at River Falls is officially underway and Gallenberg said it will continue through the spring scholarship banquet in 2013.