Agricultural experiment stations aren’t as publicly visible as they once were—as people in the south have moved away from farming as a career and a way of life, the services these stations offered to local farms has fallen out of demand.
Be that as it may, North Carolina has a long history of agricultural research that continues on even today. According to NCPedia, the first test farm built started in NC in 1877, and was only the second in the nation after a Connecticut station that began in 1857.
So what is a test farm? These were state run, state funded farming areas which set out to experiment with fertilizers, soil, and crop types, and even animal husbandry to determine what worked best in the local area and could get farmers the highest yields and most profits. In addition, they offered seed for sale, had speakers come to offer education to the local farmers, and various other services.
The Piedmont Test Farm was Statesville’s own experiment station, and it was among the first to be built, with purchase of the land taking place in 1902 and activity at the farm beginning in 1904 on the outskirts of Statesville in the area today where West Front Street and Meacham Road meet near Highway 64. In fact, Meacham Road’s name is tied to the history of the old test farm.
The state bought 210 acres for the farm, but this apparently didn’t constitute the whole property, and some portion of it was still owned by the town and by individuals, who were essentially leasing the property to the state. This would be part of the reason it would be forced to move decades later.
The farm’s first head was Frank T. Meacham (which is where Meacham Rd gets its name). Meacham was the first man to earn a master’s degree from NC State University, and would work as foreman at the Biltmore Estate’s dairy, and as the superintendent at the NC School For The Deaf farm in Morganton before taking on the role as Test Farm superintendent. He would keep the farm prosperous and active until his death in 1930, when his own son, Frank Barnard Meacham would take over.
F.B. Meacham would oversee the farm with the same skill and dedication as his father until it left Statesville.
From it’s beginning, the farm was a staple of the community with yearly picnics drawing huge crowds who came to eat, sing, and learn the latest breakthroughs in agricultural science they could apply to their own land and crops.
Beyond this, there were also activities seemingly monthly which brought out people from all over the area and adjoining counties to hear about new techniques in seed production, fertilization, and any other topic relating to farm life that one could imagine. There were also special events for “colored” farmers, and women and children. All of this for free to the rural farmers and their families as a service of the state.
In addition, crops and seed were also sold from the farm, and locals could purchase seed which the farm had experimented with and determined to be particularly suited to the area and its soil.
As Statesville expanded, industry began to crowd out and overtake farming. The Piedmont Test Farm began to see this creeping menace early on, as the Carnation Milk plant was built in the farm’s backyard in 1939. It would be just the first soldier in the steady invasion of industrialization which would push the farm out. Land value continued to rise, and the sprawl of Statesville rushed forward in the name of progress.
Both the city and the state knew what was coming. The state even sold off small plots of the land in 1950 to private buyers who wanted to build business in the area. Even before that though, the state had begun to discuss a future where the farm was no longer located in Statesville.
Plans were drawn up for moving the farm somewhere else. By 1953
a new site was chosen for the test farm in Rowan county and land was purchased. That site still operates today.
The Statesville site was slowly phased out and operations were moved piecemeal across the county line. Then, in June 1956, the whole property was auctioned off in parcels. The state walked away with $251,750, (or about $2.4 million when adjusted for inflation) and Statesville lost another part of its community and its history.
For half a century the Piedmont Test Farm had served the people of Iredell and surrounding counties, improving farming, enriching lives, and adding tangible value to the town of Statesville. But unfortunately, as was the case on a nationwide level, farming began its downward spiral before the farm was built, and as the years passed it by, men began learning to make furniture rather than growing corn.
However, the farm still serves today’s farmer from its new location, working to find the best technological advances in farming and how they may be applied to small and large working farms. They also partner with groups like 4-H and Future Farmers of America to offer training and events for young people who want to take on the calling to work the land.
Despite being nearly forgotten today, there is a plethora of information available about the Piedmont Test Farm, and the state’s experimental farms in general. I will include anything of interest below:
North Carolina Agricultural Experiment Station : the first 60 years, 1877-1937
A history of the beginnings of North Carolina’s test farms, part of NC State’s archives.
Update: The Iredell County Library has uploaded another program from a “Farmer’s Picnic”, this one from 1925.