Note: this feature article is one of several in a special issue about land grant universities in the West.
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 level fields.
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 legislature.
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.
That makes 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.
This issue contains the first in a series of articles that High Country News will publish on the land-grant universities.