Scratch a dam builder or Forest Service employee or rancher or farmer or county commissioner and much more often than not you will find a graduate of Utah State University, New Mexico State University, the University of Wyoming, the University of Arizona or one of the West's other land-grant universities.
The land grants are the most important
institutions in the West. Not only do they train the Westerners who
shape our landscape, but they do the region's research. And
land-grant research is less likely than much academic work to
languish in dusty reports; instead, the university's extension
agents carry results into the field. They show housewives how to
dry or can or pickle their garden produce, teach ranchers to use
the futures financial market to protect against swings in cattle
prices, and help irrigators use lasers to guide the machines that
More important than techniques and
technology is the land grants' transmission of a philosophy. Over
the decades, they have elevated efficiency and scale of production
above all other values. Their achievement can be measured in the
fact that an average acre today produces 14 times more food than a
century ago. And that an average farmer today feeds 50 people
instead of the two or three he fed a century ago.
Thanks to land grants, poet Edwin Markham's "man
with the hoe' - -Bowed by the weight of centuries he leans upon his
hoe and gazes on the ground, the emptiness of ages in his face' -
has become the man with $1 million or more in specialized, often
monstrous equipment. Capital-rich, well-educated farmers, livestock
owners, feedlot or tree-farm operators, and fish-farm owners are
backed by legions of agribusiness specialists - people trained at
the land grants in marketing, finance, refrigeration, bug killing,
crop genetics, poultry science, and the like.
The nation's land grants have been so successful
in pushing their agenda that they have nearly eliminated their
original constituency: family farmers. Instead of educating
students who will go home to work the land, they produce
agricultural researchers and agribusinesspeople - insurers and
accountants and bankers and chemical and machinery salesmen. And,
working hand in glove with the decline in farming opportunities,
they give general educations to young people coming off the farms,
enabling them to move more easily away from their rural communities
and families into urban lives and jobs.
The land-grant university
system was founded by Congress during the Civil War to educate
working people. These "agricultural and mechanical" colleges were
the only alternative to the classic education the children of the
well-to-do could get at existing colleges. But over the last 130
years, the original stark differences between land grants and other
universities have almost disappeared. Today, the land grants differ
in only two ways from the rest of the herd. All the faculty at a
land grant have an obligation to serve their state's communities.
And each land grant has a college of agriculture, which is keeper
of the land-grant tradition and recipient of earmarked research and
extension funds from both the U.S. Congress and the state
Throughout the West, these colleges
of agriculture have remained tightly focused on the traditional
rural economies, thanks in part to the political hold the Congress
and state legislatures exert through the funds they provide land
grants. So if you raise crops or livestock, or harvest trees or
develop water, the colleges of agriculture and the extension
services have the expertise and will to help you. But if you are
concerned with land and resources in a different way - as a
land-use planner in a rural county, as a citizen concerned about
grazing or logging or as owner of a recreational rafting firm - you
are likely to be on your own.
And therein lies
the land-grant universities' problem. Locked tight with traditional
rural interests, the faculty at these institutions have lacked the
freedom, and encouragement, to think new ideas.
As a result, land-grant universities have been
displaced in the intellectual marketplace. The best-known name in
livestock grazing is Allan Savory, creator of holistic resource
management and guru to many ranchers. The University of Colorado's
law school leads in water policy questions. The leading energy
theorist is Amory Lovins and his Rocky Mountain Institute. Alston
Chase is the authority on national parks. When it comes to the
depopulation of the High Plains, ground has been broken by Frank
and Deborah Popper of New Jersey's Rutgers University, a land
grant, but not a Western land grant. Wendell Berry is the
best-known proponent of small-scale farming. And Wes Jackson is the
scientific leader of the sustainable farming movement.
Whether these people are right isn't the point.
What counts is that the land-grant universities handed over to
others the job of providing Westerners with intellectual overviews
of the region's major issues.
Our region is
extraordinarily thin when it comes to progressive institutions.
Other regions may be able to afford paralyzed publicly supported
colleges. But we lack their alternatives "the private liberal arts
colleges and universities other parts of the nation take for
granted. We also lack foundations and think tanks and broad-based
citizen reform movements. Finally, there is no large-circulation
newspaper or electronic medium to enable Westerners to talk across
our spectacular geographic barriers.
publicly funded institutions like the land-grant system - whose
origins lie in a tradition of social and economic progress and
whose territory is the entire West - all the more important.
Although it is late in the day, there are signs
that some land-grant universities and their colleges of agriculture
are returning to life and beginning to take responsibility for a
broad range of rural challenges. It is in all of our interests that
they succeed. As the chaos and conflict visible across the West
demonstrates, we badly need them.
contains the first in a series of articles that High Country News
will publish on the land-grant universities.