Farmingdale’s First Director Fights Famine Overseas Through Agriculture

Authored by Kimberly Simmons

A page from the August 1921 edition of the student publication The Furrow, featuring article “Bon Voyage, Director Johnson!” At the time of its writing, Johnson had recently embarked on a humanitarian journey to the Near East.

The Furrow was a student publication (1916-1921) of the New York State Institute of Applied Agriculture, currently Farmingdale State College. The digitized item selected here is an article from the August 1921 edition, titled “Bon Voyage, Director Johnson!” (1921). Here we are informed of the journey of the Institute’s first director, Albert A. Johnson, who had recently set out to regions of the Near East that were in the throes of famine.

Johnson volunteered his time in the summer of 1921 with the Near East Relief (“Chamber Member in Famine Region” 1921, 2) to survey the conditions in Transcaucasia, when he and his party encountered a humanitarian crisis in the famine-stricken district of Volga in Russia (Near East Relief 1921, 3). In a cable addressed to American farmers, Johnson described horrifying conditions in Armenia and Transcaucasia, making a plea for “generous contributions of grain” (“Chamber Member in Famine Region” 1921, 2). Famine was not the only cause of death in stricken areas – a cholera epidemic claimed thousands of victims as well, many of them children. (“Cholera in Transcaucasia” 1921).

Johnson and two other party members secured permission from Russian authorities to assess the conditions in the famine district and report back to Herbert Hoover, head of the American Relief Administration, to solicit relief assistance. The Russian Commission of the Near East Relief was formed, with Johnson as its Chairman, for the purpose of this assessment (Near East Relief 1921, 4).

The Commission traveled a distance of 4,863 miles by car over twenty-seven days (Near East Relief 1921, 5). They reported that millions of people in ten Volga districts had left their homes to try to escape the famine, traveling westward in search of food. They strongly recommended that these refugees be urged to return to their homes and resume farming, and that food and seed be provided in order for them to do so (“Say Famine Hordes Menace Europe” 1921). The Commission also urged that an Act of Congress be made to form associations that would supply $500 million worth of agricultural machinery and tractors to Russia (Near East Relief 1921, 47).

Upon his return to the U.S., Johnson urged Hoover to send one million tons of seed grain to Russia (“Albert Johnson” 1963). He had earned the respect of Soviet officials, who were so impressed with him that seven institutions in Russia were built based on the Farmingdale model, and students from Russia were brought over to study at Farmingdale (Cavaioli 2012, 78).

Johnson’s efforts overseas perfectly align with the Vincentian Mission, which includes a call to “search out the causes of poverty and social injustice and to encourage solutions that are adaptable, effective, and concrete,” and his actions embody “the spirit of compassionate concern for others so characteristic of Vincent” (St. John’s University, n.d.).  His work in Russia was not just to provide food to famine-stricken areas – more importantly, it was to find the long-term solutions needed for the starving Russian people to be able to grow their own food.


“Albert Johnson, Farm Expert, 83: Agricultural Aide to Hoover Dies–Toured Soviet Urged Hoover to Send Grain.” 1963. New York Times Jun 01, 16.

“Bon Voyage, Director Johnson!” 1921. The Furrow 1(1):6. Record Group 2 (RG2) College Publications, Series: Student Publications – Furrow 1916-1921, Farmingdale State College Archives, Farmingdale, NY

“Chamber Member in Famine Region.” 1921.  Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce Bulletin 3 (1).

Cavaioli, Frank J. 2012. Farmingdale State College: A History. Excelsior Editions. Albany: Excelsior Editions/State University of New York Press.

“Cholera in Transcaucasia.” 1921. New York Times. Aug 31, 9.

Near East Relief (Organization). 1921. An American Report on the Russian Famine; Findings of the Russian Commission of the Near East Relief. New York: The Nation.

“Say Famine Hordes Menace Europe.” 1921. New York Times. Aug 26, 2.

St. John’s University. n.d. “Our Mission.” Accessed March 6, 2019.