History of the Section of Soil and Crop Sciences

George E. Caldwell

The history of the Section of Soil and Crop Sciences (SCS) is traced back to the arrival of George C. Caldwell in 1868 and Isaac P. Roberts in 1874, prior to the establishment of the College of Agriculture. Caldwell performed groundbreaking research in soil fertility and plant analysis, while Roberts initiated experiments on production of wheat, corn, and oats. Resident instruction in agricultural practices and lectures to farmer groups (an early form of extension) were also initiated at that time. In 1903, the Department of Agronomy and the Department of Agricultural Chemistry were established as the first units of the then-new New York State College of Agriculture. For over 100 years, the department has been an intellectual leader in crop and soil sciences and has played a central role related to the mission of the College of Agriculture (now Agriculture and Life Sciences). Dr. Marlin Cline, Chair of the Department from 1963 - 1970, wrote a History of Agronomy at Cornell that includes information from 1868 - 1980.

Much of American research in soil and crop science had its origins in studies of agriculture at Cornell, and it was strongly involved in the establishment of the American Society of Agronomy and subsequently the Soil Science and Crop Science Societies of America. In the first decades, research emphasis was on crop production research. In 1904, soil science rapidly developed with fundamental research becoming an important component. An additional area of soils activity was established in 1905 with the addition of a soil survey leader. In 1907, construction began with the Cornell lysimeters, which were the focus of much of the research through the 1920's. Many publications resulted from this work and dealt mainly with the losses of inorganic plant nutrients in drainage water and uptake of nutrients by crops under various treatments. This work established a precedent and standard of excellence that influenced many modern research efforts to measure, interpret and predict the fate of chemicals in soils and their delivery to water. The department was also among the first to establish overseas research programs, gaining a preeminent international reputation in agronomy. The changing priorities of society during the 1960's led to the growth of research on environmental and health-related problems along with emphasis on soil resources, forage crops and weeds that continued through the 1970's and 1980's. Since 2006, the department has become an integral part of new curricula in Agricultural Sciences and Environmental and Sustainability Sciences, which provide undergraduate students with integrated and diverse opportunities for studies. In 2014, the department joined with four other CALS departments to form the the School of Integrative Plant Science, and changed its name to the Section of Soil and Crop Sciences (SCS).

SCS was the first agronomy department in the nation to offer graduate education, and has trained many of the country’s first crop and soil scientists. There have been over 1,200 Masters and Doctoral degrees granted in soil and crop sciences since 1888. Many of its former graduates hold leadership positions at academic, research and governmental institutions around the world. Two recent World Food Prize laureates (Pedro Sanchez, 2002, and Colin McClung, 2006) received degrees from the department.

Historical Background of the Modern Department of Agronomy