Agriculture and Stanford University:
The Intentions of Leland Stanford

by Lee Altenberg
December 24, 1987

Leland Stanford wanted the study of agriculture to have a prominent place at the Leland Stanford, Junior, University. Agriculture was one of the four areas Stanford specifically mandated in the Grant of Endowment of the University:

  1. To prohibit sectarian instruction, but to have taught in the University the immortality of the soul, the existence of an all-wise and benevolent Creator, and that obedience to His laws is the highest duty of man.
  2. To have taught in the University the right and advantages of association and co-operation.
  3. To afford equal facilities and give equal advantages in the University to both sexes.
  4. To maintain on the Palo Alto estate a farm for instruction in agriculture in all its branches.

Agriculture is mentioned two other times in the Grant of Endowment:


Its nature, that of a University, with such seminaries of learning as shall make it of the highest grade, including mechanical institutes, museums, galleries of art, laboratories and conservatories, together with all things necessary for the study of agriculture in all its branches, and for mechanical training, and the studies and exercises directed to the cultivation and enlargement of the mind.


It shall be the duty of the Trustees to give to the President of the University the following powers:

3. To fix the terms and conditions upon which the agricultural farms... shall be opened to deserving persons, without their becoming students thereof.

Following are the other mentions of agriculture that Stanford made in regards to the founding of Stanford University.

Stanford told the Trustees, at his first meeting with them, November 14, 1885:

The Palo Alto farm furnishes a sufficiently diversified soil, with a topography which admirably fits it as a place for agricultural education.

Writing in 1887 about the purposes of Leland Stanford, Junior, University, Leland Stanford said:

Intelligence, when applied to horticulture, performs in that interesting department of human industry the counterpart of that performed by labor-aiding machinery in mechanics. Intelligence in the cultivation of fields is to the cultivator what the cotton-gin was to the production of cotton, what the inventions of Arkwright were to the production of textile fabrics. The individual capacity in any department of human endeavor is multiplied a hundredfold by intelligence. Education should, therefore, come to the aid of every occupation and calling.

The orchard, the vineyard, the garden, cultivated fields, the husbandry of domestic animals, the factory, and the workshop should be the objective departments into which the students of our colleges and universities should graduate, equally with the bench, the bar, the studio, or the pulpit. The fundamental error of the world appears to have been the conception that lack of mental training, or in short ignorance, may become entrusted with the direction of the world's greatest departments of productive activity, and that education belongs alone to the learned professions. It will be the aim of the university to demonstrate the value of trained perception, augmented understanding, enlarged intellectual capacity, elevated character and moral purpose, in the fields and factories, equal to the value of these high attributes in those callings which relate to intellectual and spiritual beings. In short, mind possesses a mastery over matter; therefore education, as preparatory to any calling, is of the highest value.

The Stanford university will have the usual departments of the ordinary seminaries of learning. I may mention it as a sort of specialty, an agricultural department in which I have great hopes. There are 7,000 acres at Palo Alto and therefore there is an ample field for experimental agricultural work.

There is a great need of scientific knowledge in the agriculture of this state. Production has hitherto been so easy that this fact has not been sufficiently realized. I do not know whether you can make perfect farmers at an agricultural college, but much would be gained if some perception of the necessity of economic processes shall get abroad.

I do not refer so much to the chemistry of farming; there is room for a great deal of visionary work here; but educated men, I do not care how or where they are educated, learn to use their minds.

Take the simple act of plowing: perfect plowing results in a fine subdivision of earth. If you plow when the ground is too hard, you are rewarded with lumps that are of no more use that stones; if you plow when the ground is too wet, you again leave lumps of earth which are equally useless. This is a very plain proposition, but it is a consistent regard for the simplest laws of nature that brings about success. I believe in education, even for farmers.

Some day you will see Palo Alto blooming with nearly all the flowers of earth, and the fruit and shade trees of every zone. We have a superb climate for the production of fruit. Fruit in this state reaches maturity easily, and in a greater state of perfection than elsewhere. The long, dry summers and equable heat are a great advantage in the chemistry of nature. In the future we shall can this fruit and send it all over the globe in exchange for wealth, which shall build us monuments of art and bestow upon us those luxuries which God has intended we should enjoy.

A university, like a tree, is planted in the soil to grow at first unseen. I shall hope for a natural process. It shall not be my fault if the growth of the university be not slow, gradual, and steady.

In the very last signed letter that Stanford wrote, to University President Jordan, June, 1893, Stanford said:

Immediately connected with the institution there are about 8,000 acres of land. I want every student to have the opportunity to learn practically how to cultivate the soil for every branch of agriculture.
I look to the time when the chemists will be able to furnish food for plants so cheaply that, on every side where there is a place for roots to grow, we shall have them yield abundantly. They are doing a great deal already, and how much more they may do it is impossible to conceive. But everything is open to us if we have the ability to go through this advanced education.

Regarding the social aspects of farming, Stanford advocated application of the "principles of cooperation" which he believed should be applied to industry generally. He introduced a bill to the U.S. Senate on December 20, 1886 to foster the formation of worker cooperatives. In an interview with the Cincinnati Enquirer on February 18, 1887, regarding the bill, Stanford said:

I can see how in California such co-operative associations would do the agriculture, such as exchanging labor from the grain-field to the orchard and vineyard.

In an interview regarding his bill in the New York Tribune, May 4, 1887, Stanford said:

As a people we are engaged in varied agriculture, as well as in a variety of manufactures and a varied commerce. A co-operative association designed to furnish labor for farming operations is clearly within the realm of practical achievement. A varied agriculture demands labor at different seasons of the year. An association of industrious, intelligent and sober agricultural laborers, comprising men qualified to perform intelligently the varied requirements of agriculture and horticulture, would be of inestimable benefit in our labor system. They could organize for the purpose of furnishing labor as the vicissitudes of the seasons for the various products; therefore co-operation would insure to the farm laborer annual employment arising out of the variety of the production of a neighborhood.


  1. Bancroft, Hubert H. 1952. History of the Life of Leland Stanford. Biobooks, Berkeley. pp. 112-114.
  2. Congressional Record, 49 Congress, 2 Sess.: 1804.
  3. Congressional Record, 51 Congress, 1 Sess.: 2068.
  4. Gath, Pointing a way for the poor to combine together and improve their condition: Senator Stanford's bill to form syndicates of labor a la capital. Cincinnati Enquirer, February 18, 1887.
  5. The Grant of Endowment, Address of Leland Stanford to the Trustees, The Leland Stanford Junior University.
  6. Stanford, Leland, Address at Stanford University opening, October 1, 1991.
  7. Stanford, Leland, Co-operation of Labor, New York Tribune, May 4, 1887.
  8. Leland Stanford's last letter, to David Starr Jordan, San Francisco Examiner, June 22, 1893.