Agriculture was one of the earliest concerns of the Rockefeller philanthropies. The General Education Board (GEB), which was established 1903 to improve education in the southern United States, quickly realized that better farming practices were the key to better schools. Its strategy was to increase crop yield, thereby raising farm incomes and building a stronger tax base to help fund public education.
From 1906 to 1914, GEB field agents collaborated with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to create over 100,000 demonstration farms promoting “scientific agriculture” across the South. They identified each community's best farmers and persuaded them to dedicate a portion of their land to new types of seed and fertilizer and adopt modern techniques of crop rotation, furrowing, and soil conservation. Higher yields (and profits) then did the rest of the work, as word spread from farmer to farmer.
The GEB’s goals, however, aimed higher than improved farms and schools. The Board sought to modernize the agrarian South. Higher crop yields guaranteed the constant flow of agricultural products that Northern industry demanded. Higher incomes, in turn, meant farm families would buy more goods. And farmers themselves became a new market: they now needed industrially produced fertilizers, better machines, and expert consultation.
A wide range of GEB social and cultural programs remade rural life from top to bottom. Night classes in local school districts used demonstration pamphlets to teach adult literacy and reinforce the benefits of a scientific approach to agriculture. Corn and poultry clubs for young people fostered a future generation of scientifically inclined, business-minded farmers. Their young members then carried the concepts of efficiency and rational management back into family life after attending lessons on household budgeting, modern canning techniques, and domestic science. Summer institutes for farm families at agricultural colleges drew rural people into a regional institutional web. On multiple fronts, GEB programs encouraged farmers to re-conceptualize agriculture as a business enterprise.
The modernizing impulse first evidenced in the GEB’s work reappeared time and again in Rockefeller Foundation (RF) agriculture programs. From rural reconstruction in China in the 1930s to the “Green Revolution” in Latin America and Southeast Asia in the 1960s, RF programs displayed the basic goals and methods of the GEB. Each program, in its own way, sought to integrate impoverished, small-hold farmers into world markets. Each program attempted to transform not only the economy, but also the customs and culture of rural societies. And each employed the basic methods developed in the GEB’s earliest years: demonstration, specialized training, and the introduction of scientific management principles.