Minnesota's Greatest Generation

Richard Swanson: Agricultural Agent

Returning servicemen and women were eager to pick up where their lives left off before the war. Many resumed their education in an effort to find their niche in post-war society. Richard Swanson found his niche with the Anoka County Extension Service. In a 2003 interview for the Anoka County Historical Society, Mr. Swanson recalled building a career in Agricultural Extension.

LC: What kind of work experience did you have before becoming a part of the Anoka County Extension Service?

RS: Well, not an awful lot. I was a farmer, and then I left the farm after I’d been in the service a little bit in 1945-46, and started school after I left the farm; started at the University, and got my degree in Agricultural Education. Actually, it was a degree from the College of Education, as a matter of fact...And graduated in 1951, and worked for six months as a teacher of Veteran's Agriculture in Glencoe...then I was encouraged to re-enlist in the Army. ...I went right directly to Korea; spent the whole time there, except for a few months at the end.

LC: You became the Extension Agent when you moved to Anoka County, then, in 1953?

RS: Right.

LC: How large was the Extension staff when you first began working there?

RS: Well, there are different kinds of definitions, but actually, there were 3 Extension Agents and one secretary...and they called us Agricultural Agents then. And [there was] a 4H Club Agent and a Home Agent.

LC: And was your educational background – you mentioned you were in...[Agricultural] Education – was that pretty common for an Extension Agent of that period? There was a great deal of teaching involved, wasn’t there, with your job?

RS: It was all teaching. Nothing else. There were some – most of the Extension Agents that were hired in ’53 – and there were quite a few hired, because there were quite a few that had Extension Agents that had been Extension Agents before the war, and then in the next 10 years, they retired. So I think there were 30 agents in Minnesota that were hired within a year or two. Maybe half of them were Ag Education graduates, and the other half were specialties in Agriculture, like Agronomy or Animal Science – something like that.

LC: The Extension Service was set up not just for farmers. Is that correct?

RS: Well, I think the greatest impact is in increasing and encouraging the farmers to make decisions on their own place, in their own family and their own farm, instead of allowing the rest of the environment to make the decisions for them.

LC: Okay. What, in your opinion, has been the greatest impact that Extension Services have made on farming in Anoka County?

RS: Well, I think the greatest impact is in increasing and encouraging the farmers to make decisions on their own place, in their own family and their own farm, instead of allowing the rest of the environment to make the decisions for them.

LC: Okay. In your years with Extension, how did you see the mission of the Service change? Did it change at all?

RS: Farms have changed, you know. Where they used to have 160 acres and 20 cows, those that have cows probably have 100 cows or 200 cows, and they still have their 160 acres, but they probably rent 500 acres, besides. Or there was, in ’53, there were a few people that were growing vegetables on peat ground – organic soils – and this became, well, I don’t know – one guy told me the other day that they sold a small piece of peat land that they’d owned since ’50, and I think they had paid a dollar an acre for it, and I think they got one and a quarter million dollars for it...for housing, you know.

LC: The Anoka County Extension Service has long been involved in teaching conservation practices to local farmers. What are the types of conservation programs that Extension promoted?

RS: Well, about 20% of the land area in Anoka County was in organic soils. ...The soils were a different kind. They weren’t sandy, and they weren’t peat; they were more like people think of when you have farms. You could grow corn there and very easily. So on the sandy soils, the problem really was wind erosion. ...They spent a lot of time on control of wind erosion and that takes shelter belts and putting it into strip cropping – kind of conventional conservation attitude. ...On the peat, the main issue is water drainage.

LC: Did you find the farmers willing to comply with the new ideas on conservation, or were they reluctant to accept those ideas?

RS: Well, new ideas don’t come in a package. You know, almost anybody could have sent away to Washington and gotten a bulletin on how to build shelter belts. But, as is, that shelter belt could be built the same here, as it was in South Dakota or someplace, and there are some issues that are similar, but the application of this technology didn’t come out of a book.

LC: Right. If the farmers in the county had not taken Extension’s advice in the past, and followed conservation practices, what would have been the state of the county’s agriculture today?

RS: It probably would have urbanized faster.

LC: The Soil Conservation district was organized in Anoka County in 1946. How [have] Soil Conservation and the Extension Service worked together over the years?

Rs: Sometimes, real well, and sometimes not so well. We almost always had field days from ’53…

LC: What were the field days?

RS: Well, we’d get a farmer that would say they’d cooperate, and then put plots out there – conservation plots – or farming plots, like different varieties of corn or soy beans or different kind of water management techniques, and invite people. Now, in 1930, the University – before any of them – the University – this peat land is still – you know – there’s a lot of peat in Minnesota. And we’re talking about a lot of land, here, so right out here where Highway 10 and Main Street, there’s a peat bog that the University have 10 years of plots that the County Agent cooperated with. Magnificent work.

L.C. So the demonstration plots, the field days, were a joint project.

R.S. Yeah. We even, a couple of years, we really did a job and joined with the DNR and Fish and Game, Forestry, and we had some really…Broad scope, and demonstrations, and we’d work and create change.

LC: Commercial sod farms have become an important part of agriculture in the county. What role did Extension play in fostering the success of those farms?

RS: Well, we worked with them. I don’t know. At one time, we had an Area Extension Agent – Curt Klett – and he worked with them, and got to know them pretty well. The first sod farm was out in Lino Lakes, and he planted sod because, in 1953, he had 200 acres of carrots ready to harvest, and a disease called aster yellows wiped them out, so he went to a different crop. And when he asked for help from me, I helped as much as I could, but that wasn’t very much, because we had not any research at the University and I had not had any – well, it hadn’t been grown like that, anyplace, so I sure didn't know anything.

LC: Truck farming has been an important type of agriculture in the county, as well. A lot of farmers growing vegetables, and this is also peat land...In what ways has Extension assisted vegetable farmers?

RS: Right from the very start of my work here, and that’s because the agent that was here before that had started some programs, we had variety programs. We planted variety plots and some of them were some that we planted as a county staff, and some – most – were planted by specialists down at the University. So, carrot variety plots were out there almost from the very beginning. And the horticulturists at the University kept the records and published it.

LC: One of the major areas where Extension Services made a contribution is in administering the 4H programs throughout the county...What changes did you see during your years as Extension Agent in the 4H programming in Anoka County?

RS: Well, in the first few years, the agents serviced the clubs. We got a kind of a deal in our office where the Home Agent and Ag Agent would visit each club for some reason or another at least once a year, and the 4H Agent would visit them at least twice a year. And, of course, they meet at night, you know. That’s a pretty heavy workload.

LC: Did you see an expansion of programming?

RS: Well, we got to a certain stage where we had 25 clubs and then they had 50. Fifty, you’re talking about 4 meetings a year, you know.

LC: What has surprised or excited you the most about agriculture in Anoka County during your years as Agent?

RS: I’m just tickled pink that farmers are able to get $200,000 an acre. ...I think that's one of the greatest...

LC: Their reward for hanging onto those family farms for so long and sticking it out through the tough times.

RS: Right.


Swanson, Richard; Linda Cameron, Interviewer, Anoka County Historical Society: Agricultural History Project, 2003. Used with permission.