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Published June 18, 2012, 09:54 AM

150th anniversary of the Morrill Act

FARGO, N.D. — Happy anniversary, land grants. North Dakota State University hosted a Great Plains Land-Grant Summit June 12 and 13 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of federal legislation that made possible state college and universities such as NDSU, the University of Minnesota, South Dakota State University and Montana State University. More than a century later, those universities remain vital for teaching, research and extension of agricultural and other information to the masses.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

FARGO, N.D. — Happy anniversary, land grants.

North Dakota State University hosted a Great Plains Land-Grant Summit June 12 and 13 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of federal legislation that made possible state college and universities such as NDSU, the University of Minnesota, South Dakota State University and Montana State University. More than a century later, those universities remain vital for teaching, research and extension of agricultural and other information to the masses.

The Morrill Act of 1862, signed by President Abraham Lincoln, formed the basis for state and territorial colleges. Lincoln signed the act, sponsored by Rep. Justin Morrill, R-Vt., which led to the “agricul-

tural and mechanical arts” schools.

A former Whig congressman and a founder of the Republican party, Morrill offered a bill that first was vetoed by President James Buchanan in 1859. Buchanan, a Democrat, was a southern appeaser and many southern congressmen opposed the first version of the bill.

After 11 southern states seceded in 1860 and 1861, Morrill resubmitted the bill, adding the roles of teaching military tactics, engineering and agriculture. The bill passed and Lincoln signed it July 2, 1862. Agricultural experiment stations were funded by Congress in 1887. The Smith-Lever Act of 1914 funded Cooperative Extension — the dissemination of research information from the universities to the people, including through county extension offices and agents.

Democracy’s college

Tom Isern, an NDSU distinguished professor of history, said the land-grant university system emerged “most clearly on the western prairies as democracy’s college” and its strength in agriculture and extension helped “prairie farmers meet the challenges of prairie farming and rural life in a vast land.”

In the act, each state got 30,000 acres of federal land, which could be sold to fund public colleges. Sixty-nine such colleges were funded as land grants.

“With diversification, modernization and globalization of the regional economy and society, including the advent of the Digital Age, the land grants serve as engines propelling the plains states to global leadership,” Isern wrote in an essay. “Institutionally, too, the land-grants emerge as intellectual and technological powerhouses.”

Neal Fisher, executive director of the North Dakota Wheat Commission, one of the attendees at the summit, said in his interactions with more than 100 customer countries, “they’re always fascinated by the system we have that makes this country so productive, agriculturally and otherwise. A lot of it goes back to this land-grant system,” which is “the envy of the world.” There were numerous references to NDSU impacts on the wheat industry, as an example, including saving the bacon of farmers in the rust outbreaks of the 1930s and 1950s, and outbreaks of fusarium head blight, or “scab,” in the 1990s. He said the region’s farmers had lost $7 billion in revenue because of scab, and many farmers might not be in business today if it weren’t for varieties that headed it off.

Ken Grafton, NDSU vice president for agricultural affairs, noted that his wife is a great, great, great granddaughter of the sister of President James Buchanan, who vetoed a land grant act in 1859. Grafton said Buchanan was “probably the worst president” in history. Buchanan, a lawyer, viewed the Morrill Act as unconstitutional, although it was never challenged.

Grafton said initial detractors of the Morrill Act that was eventually passed suggested that Lincoln “never really thought this was a major accomplishment” because he never mentioned it in any of his major speeches, before his death on April 14, 1865. Grafton speculated that the war and abolishing slavery might have distracted Lincoln from praising the act.

“The use of the land grant to establish a new kind of university was revolutionary,” Grafton noted. Grafton said land grants are vital to the life of North Dakota, asserting that “Harvard University could care less if the farmers of North Dakota, or anybody else in the Great Plains” have viable wheat breeds. “We care about that,” he said, noting that any time the university releases a new wheat variety it adds $300 million to the economy because of improved yield or traits.

In 1862, in the entire United States, there were only six engineering colleges. By 1880, there were 85, and by 1917, there were 126. Engineering was one of the first missions of land grants, and mechanical and agricultural engineering are integrally related to other agricultural degrees, eventually offered through land grants.

Montana’s No. 1

Douglas Steele, vice president for external relations and director of extension at Montana State University, Bozeman, says land grants are as capable of changing the world as they ever were. He said Montana holds the distinction of having more land grants than any other state, with eight institutions, including tribal colleges. Montana had the first chapter of Epsilon Sigma Phi, the professional association for extension employees.

Steele, who started his extension career as an assistant county agent for animal livestock and 4-H livestock projects, said an early extension mentor talked to him about the role of the agency as “change agents,” who operate as a catalyst for community improvements. Funding is an important challenge, Steele says. “I think we live in a society that has less appreciation for agriculture than ever before. If we woke up one day and instead of paying about 11 percent of our expendable income on food, we paid 35 percent like the rest of the world, we would have a rude awakening about the role of agriculture in our society.”

National agriculture leaders see food security as a matter of national security, but 70 percent of the farm bill is for nutrition assistance programs. “Not that that isn’t important, but when you look at the U.S. Department of Agriculture as the fourth biggest government agency, it makes it look like we’re very bloated,” he said. “In fact, less than 1 percent of the USDA budget goes to research and extension through Hatch and Smith-Lever funding.”

Developing capital

Arlen Leholm, an agricultural economist who worked at NDSU during the farm credit crisis and drought years of the 1980s, and went on to top research and extension posts in Michigan and Wisconsin, says the land-grant system is still a key to developing human, economic and environmental capital.

Land grants such as NDSU have helped protect soil by educating about the shift to no-till farming, which has helped prevent a recurrence of soil erosion as from the Dirty Thirties. He says land grants need to continue pushing for adoption of high-tech applications for farming that conserve natural resources and reduce environmental impacts, reduce financial risks and increase profits.

He says land grants must also help farmers from different regions, including the Northeast states, take advantage of climate variability.

Human capital is the primary resource, Leholm said. “Nothing else will happen in a country that’s really great unless we develop human capital.” He said the system has a key role in teaching science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

But he added land grants need to help develop entrepreneurial skills, and the “soft skills” of interpersonal relations to go with technical skills.

“If you’re going to mentor a person, you have to suspend evaluative and discerning listening and practice empathic and comprehensive listening,” Leholm said. “Almost all scientists are taught to be discerning and evaluative listeners.” He said leadership is extremely important to a team, but prima donnas can do extreme damage.

Leholm said land grants need to take a role in turning around the low high school graduation rates in the U.S. He says those rates are a disaster, and threaten to make the U.S. in “danger of going into second-world status.”

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