Seaman Asahel Knapp, agriculturist, college administrator, and entrepreneur, the son of Dr. Bradford and Rhoda (Seaman) Knapp, was born on December 16, 1833, at Schroon Lake, Essex County, New York. At Union College at Schenectady, New York, he received a classical education, became a Phi Beta Kappa, and graduated with a B.A. in 1856. Immediately following graduation Knapp married Maria Elizabeth Hotchkins, a native of Hampton, New York; the couple had five children. They were employed as college teachers for ten years. They moved to Benton County, Iowa, after Knapp suffered an illness resulting from a severe knee injury. They purchased a small sheep farm at Big Grove, and Knapp also served as pastor of the Methodist church at nearby Vinton. In 1869 Knapp became superintendent of the Iowa State School for the Blind at Vinton. He is credited with the modernization of the institution. He farmed at the same time he was overseeing the school. In 1873 he organized and became the first president of the Iowa Improved Stock Breeders Association.
During the next twenty years Knapp concentrated his efforts on the improvement of farming techniques. In 1876 he began publishing the Western Stock Journal and Farmer out of offices at Cedar Rapids. The journal became a vehicle for his suggestions on modern methods of farming and a public diary on the experiments he performed on his farm. His publications, speeches, and reputation resulted in his selection as professor of agriculture at Iowa State College of Agriculture at Ames, Iowa, in 1879. He served as president of the college from 1883 to 1884. On the campus of Iowa State, Knapp established the forerunner of the demonstration farm. The campus farm became the site of experimental farming. In 1882 he drafted a bill providing federal aid to establish experimental farming stations at agricultural colleges. Ultimately, this bill became the Hatch Act of 1887. From 1886 to 1898 Knapp resided in Lake Charles, Louisiana, where he conducted a variety of experiments for the North American Land and Timber Company of Great Britain and promoted immigration to Louisiana. He also developed the rice industry there. He was subsequently appointed agricultural explorer for the United States, Asia, Latin America, and the West Indies and studied farming practices in those lands.
The boll weevil arrived in Texas in 1903. Panic set in, farms were abandoned, whole counties depopulated. The Department of Agriculture commissioned Knapp to demonstrate how cotton could still be raised. At roughly the same time the citizens of Terrell, Texas, asked the department to send an expert to assist them in their efforts. Knapp arrived in Terrell in 1903. His reputation, convincing speech, and promise to demonstrate that cotton could be grown persuaded the city to assist him in setting up a demonstration farm. The land of Walter C. Porter was chosen. Knapp visited the Porter farm every month and oversaw the implementation of the methods that had worked in Iowa and Louisiana. The demonstration was successful, and soon neighboring farmers and farmers throughout East Texas adopted Knapp's approach. From his headquarters in Houston, Knapp sent out a series of "lecture trains" to reach the farmers. During the first year 7,000 farmers agreed to set up demonstration farms. In 1906 Knapp initiated the county-agent plan, and in order to promote the plan he organized boys' cotton and corn growing clubs. In 1910 a girls' corn and poultry club was added. These organizations were the forerunners of the modern 4-H Clubs.
The success of Knapp's work and the attention the South received from northern philanthropists and expatriate writers like Walter Hines Page resulted in a drive for federal aid to extend demonstration work to every southern state. Knapp spent the last years of his life in this effort. Because of the amount of time spent communicating with officials in Washington D.C., he left Lake Charles for the capital in 1907. He died there on April 1, 1911, after a three week illness. At the time of his death there were 700 instructors traveling throughout the southern states. In 1914 the legislation Knapp supported was included in the Smith-Lever Act.