WASECA — Ed Frederick, who has been one of the state’s greatest champions of agriculture education, has seen revolutionary changes since he first dug his hands in the soil of his family’s rural Madison Lake farm.
“I remember taking a wire across the field to hill-drop corn seeds so you could cross cultivate it both ways. Now the weed and pest protection is genetically built into the seed.”
Frederick, 82, has officially ended his 60-year career in ag education with the University of Minnesota, but he admits his daily routine hasn’t changed a whole lot.
He still has an office on the Southern Research and Outreach Center in Waseca, just across the street from the federal prison that was once the ag college Frederick helped build.
“I’m really doing nothing different in retirement. I was so darn fortunate to work in something I was so passionate about and loved so much. I’m still active in Farmamerica, the Waseca Chamber, and 4-H alumni and FFA alumni. There are plenty of things to do and it’s all fun.”
Family farm roots
Frederick grew up on a farm of nine kids, seven of them boys. The siblings would go on to cut a wide swath of entrepreneurial and professional success.
While Ed went to gain multiple degrees, his brothers, including Sal and Tom Sr., went on to build and run the Happy Chef restaurant chain. The family’s numbers have thinned over the years with the Korea War, a car crash and old age taking several siblings.
“I’m the old one in the family now.”
Frederick married Shirley in 1951 and moved to the University of Minnesota where he had a position in the dairy department while he was going to school.
And go to school he did, earning three degrees in six years, including a bachelor’s and master’s, topped off by a doctorate in dairy husbandry in 1957.
He was hired at the Crookston campus in 1958, teaching and heading up the dairy and livestock department.
In 1964 he became superintendent of the Southern School of Agriculture and Southern Experiment Station in Waseca, a community he wouldn’t leave.
In 1969 he was chosen to lead a new two-year agriculture college, the University of Minnesota, Waseca campus. It was a position he held until 1990, when the university closed the campus in a controversial move that devastated the community and still rankles Frederick today.
For the next 20 years, Frederick served as a senior fellow at the university until retiring at the end of 2012.
As a senior fellow, he led a study on the university’s role in rural development, worked on several community rural development projects, advised the university on its ag programs, among other things.
“It was the best of all worlds to be working on projects I was interested in and that the university was interested in. I could have retired anytime along the way, but I was doing what I wanted.”
Much of that work took place in his office where he could peer out the window at the razor wire of the low-security federal prison, where about 1,100 women are confined — a number just shy of the number of students who attended the campus when it was an ag college.
He knew everyone
Gyles Randall, a retired professor and soil scientist, came to the Southern Experiment Station in 1970 as Frederick was starting UMW.
“His leadership in education is really showing today. A lot of the leaders in ag in the past 10 or 15 years are UMW graduates.”
Randall said Frederick is a likable man who possesses a rare political quality, coupled with impeccable work ethic.
“He’s one of those guys who remembered everyone’s name and face. He was like Hubert Humphrey that way,” he said. “He can be humorous and get people’s attention, but he’s very meticulous and bright and knew how to work.”
Randall said Frederick’s love of education was broad.
“He valued not just book learning but on-site experience. He had a professional experience program that every student had to participate in before graduating. And if students wanted to go to St. Paul and get a four-year degree, he was fully behind them. He just valued education.”
A bitter pill
The two-year ag college was the pride of Waseca and a fast-growing campus that quickly went from 150 students to well over 1,000 at its peak in the 1980s.
In the late ’80s University President Nils Hasselmo recommended the campus be closed in a money-saving move. Hundreds of students went to the Twin Cities to protest the move and Hasselmo was dubbed the “grim reaper” of agriculture.
The Board of Regents voted to shut down the college, saving the university just $6.4 million, a sliver of the university’s then $1.6 billion budget.
Frederick hoped the passage of time would make sense of the decision — but it hasn’t.
“Usually those kinds of decisions, when they’re made, are made for a reason and as the years go by the decisions seem to make more sense. But that decision still doesn’t make sense,” Frederick said.
“We had a great two-year college that could have developed into a four-year college, and it would have been a terrific thing for the region.”
He said the training that could have been provided today is more needed than ever.
“There is a void in this area. Agriculture is so important and we should be developing the education here. The U of M does some things, but we’re on the firing line here. This is where it should be.”
Noting that 20 percent of the people in the state work in the broad area of agriculture and agribusiness, Frederick said it’s a mistake to think of ag education as a place to train farmers.
“That’s part of it, but it’s all of the other things, too. You need the brightest and the best with all the technology and biogenetics and renewable energy. With all the developments, it takes a lot of education and training to get the jobs done,” he said.
“Modern agriculture is not well understood by people. It’s unbelievable the transition we’ve gone though.”
An open house retirement celebration for Frederick will be 4-8 p.m. April 19 at Farmamerica with a short program at 5:30 p.m.