Duane Smith didn’t introduce crop art to the Minnesota State Fair in 1965, but he started expanding it after recognizing its popularity.

Crop art attracted more people to learn about farming basics. “He wanted to showcase the seed art for the average city person far removed from agriculture,” said Ellen Yantes, his daughter.

Chuck Walter, a student of Smith’s at the University of Minnesota’s alfalfa project, credited Smith for getting people to think about seeds and what becomes of them. “He wanted to educate people to know that there’s more to food than buying it at Walmart,” Walter said.

Smith died June 11 at 91.

Granddaughter Claire Dufur described Smith as “a man of ridiculous intelligence” in a college essay. “He not only can recite the Latin name of plants and animals, even after a stroke, but he also has a rich knowledge of history and many other subjects,” she wrote.

His early years didn’t show a young man on a path to lifelong learning and education. He quit school in Fish Lake, Ind., when he was 13, hopped on a train and went to see his grandparents in Brownsville, Texas. “He didn’t think he was smart enough for school,” said Rebecca Matthews, another daughter. He eventually got his GED while in the Navy.

He met his wife-to-be Barbara Greenwald, of the Twin Cities, at Naval Station Great Lakes in Chicago. After marriage, they moved to Minnesota and Barbara persuaded her reluctant husband to go to college. “She took him to the University of Minnesota’s farm campus in St. Paul to register and locked the car until he could prove that he had registered for school,” Matthews said.

Driving along rural roads in Minnesota or Indiana with his family, Smith would often stop the car just to look at a plant or flower and quiz his kids on what it was. He’d also stop to cut down noxious weeds.

Last year, Smith called Walter about a Palmer amaranth incursion in Lac qui Parle County in western Minnesota. “Here he was, 90 years old in poor health, concerned about an invasive weed coming to Minnesota. That was his life, agriculture and crops,” Walter said.

He spent a lot of time at the fair trying to get average Minnesotans, including kids, to care about farming and farmers. “He had a wonderful way of talking to kids in their language,” said Gaye Lindfors of Vadnais Heights, whose dad was assistant farm crop superintendent at the fair. “He’d say, ‘when you eat a sandwich, the bread comes from this.’ ”

When crop art “queen” Lillian Colton thought that she had won enough ribbons after 23 years and pulled her work out of fair competition, Smith didn’t want to lose her, so he asked her to demonstrate her technique instead. “When mom started there were only 15 to 20 entries. Now it’s about 150,” said Colton’s daughter, Linda Paulsen.

Smith wanted fairgoers to see the diversity of crops that Minnesotans produce. He contacted farmers from all over the state to get them to display their crops at the fair. “People don’t know what a lot of the crops in the state look like,” said Steve Pooch, who supervised the farm crops competition at the fair.

Still, Smith knew crop art was the real draw for many fairgoers, and he expanded the amount of space given to it.

He was employed by the Crop Improvement Association in the 1960s, a sponsor in the Agriculture/Horticulture Building. From 1975 to 2001, he was the farm crop superintendent and given the fair’s Honorary Life Member award in 2004.

He is survived by his children Ellen, Duane Jr. and Rebecca, and 12 grandchildren and 16 great grandchildren. Services have been held.

 

John Ewoldt 612-673-7633