The Free Press, Mankato, MN

March 21, 2013

Waseca research center grew to be a place of ag pilgrimage

By Tim Krohn
Free Press Staff Writer

WASECA — Gyles Randall says the Southern Research and Outreach Center in Waseca — “this sleepy little location” — today employs internationally known researchers and draws visitors from around the world on a pilgrimage to some of the richest farm land and latest ag knowledge.

But Randall, professor emeritus of soil, water and climate, at the University of Minnesota facility, said local farmers weren’t impressed when the center opened 100 years ago.

“Local farmers considered the demonstration farm a waste of money,” said Randall, who gave a presentation on the center’s history during the Waseca Area Chamber of Commerce Farm and City luncheon Thursday.

The center started in 1913 when the Legislature approved buying 240 acres of  land for $125 per acre. “They wanted it in rich, fertile, wet soil,” Randall said of the southern Minnesota location.

“It’s the black soil people throughout the world come here to admire.”

Starting from scratch on bare land, the few employees set about building a house, barns, buying horses, shorthorn milk cows and other livestock. Soon a weather station was added and an arboretum where grapes, plums and other fruit trees were started.

While high-tech farm implements do the work today, horse power and ingenuity reigned early on — grain was brought in from the fields by filling burlap sacks that were stacked high on the hood, roof and trunk of a Model T.

Over the years, hundreds more acres were added and the dairy and swine programs expanded. (The goal of breeding shorthorn cattle to produce both good milk and meat was a bust and the herd was sold.) 

In the 1950s, the U of M started an agriculture school in Waseca and both the school and the research center grew rapidly. Waseca’s role in agriculture education and research took a hit in 1992 when the University of Minnesota, in a controversial move, chose to close the college campus. (It is now a federal prison.)

But the center has continued to thrive with dozens of faculty, staff and researchers.

“We’ve engaged not with just the local ag community, but the world ag community who have come through here,” Randall said.