This is a story about how hard it is to change. In 1989, Washington State University's new dean of agriculture decided to see what the people of the state wanted from his college. University representatives spread out from Pullman, a town of 24,000 in the wheatfields of eastern Washington, to talk to farmers, environmentalists and other residents of Washington about what they would like to see from WSU, the only university in the state mandated to meet the needs of rural people.
After getting an earful from
constituents, the university came up with two requests for the
state legislature: First, it asked for $1.2 million for a lab to
test pesticides in preparation for marketing them, as well as to
determine their effects on the environment. This was coupled with
another, more innovative and expensive request - $6.6 million to
establish a Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural
Everyone liked the proposal.
"There wasn't one (agricultural or environmental
group) where they didn't say, "Yeah, you're right, we're with you
on that, that's terrific," " said Larry Ganders, the university's
lobbyist at the state capitol in Olympia. He was surprised at how
similar the farmers' and environmentalists' goals were: Both wanted
to control soil erosion and reduce use of synthetic fertilizers.
There was broad agreement on finding alternatives to manufactured
pesticides. A long-time goal among environmentalists, the subject
interested farmers because regulation is shrinking the pool of
available pesticides (see story page 10). So the agricultural and
environmental lobbies decided to work together to win funding for
the lab and the center.
But what had been an
undisputed hit at town meetings proved a political bomb in the
state legislature. There was some support from the agricultural and
environmental lobbies, but, Ganders said, "nobody was willing to
die for it." The legislature gave the lab full funding, but it
didn't give the center a dime.
Why? There are
plenty of obvious reasons. The suburban-dominated legislature -
which has been known to wonder out loud whether the land-grant
college is necessary - was starting a belt-tightening process that
continues today. Environmental and agricultural lobbyists had few
allies in the key appropriations committee. The two groups are
better at defeating legislation than at getting it passed. And they
were not used to working together.
"It was like
going up to the Arabs and the Israelis and saying, "I know you guys
are fighting, but lay down your arms for a second and come and
support what WSU is doing," " said Ganders.
Ganders, who called the legislature's refusal to fund the center
"one of my great failures," pointed to a further possibility: The
agricultural and environmental lobbies didn't trust the university
enough to throw their whole-hearted support behind the
"I think their institutional memories
were against us," he said.
It is no
secret that in recent years land-grant colleges have have done a
lot to alienate their traditional farming constituency while
gaining only the faltering trust of their new suburban and
The rift with
farmers has been partly financial, partly structural and partly
ethical. Agricultural research budgets at land-grant colleges are
heavily dependent on state legislatures; about half of WSU's is.
But pressing urban demands such as education, health care and jail
construction have turned the state legislature increasingly
tight-fisted when it comes to funding agricultural research. It has
cut Washington State's agricultural research budget 9.5 percent
over the last four years, with deeper cuts promised. Meanwhile,
farmers accuse the university researchers of abandoning research on
farms to cloister themselves in university labs, more loyal to
their professional advancement than to the farmers they are
supposed to serve.
"There's a lot of resentment
in this state," said Darrell O. Turner, president of the Washington
State Farm Bureau and a farmer in Snohomish County in the
northwestern corner of the state. "(The farmers) feel they've been
abandoned. We don't rely on the university. Not nearly as much as
we did. Not nearly as much as we'd like."
past, Turner would have asked his extension agent for advice on
pesticides for the vegetable seed crops he raises. These days,
while Washington State supports extension staff with titles like
Natural Resource Agent, "whatever that is," Turner turns to his
chemical supplier for information.
"I have to go
to the private sector, to Agri-Chem," he said. "They keep current
on what the industry has done. I would never consider going to the
county agent, because she's not knowledgeable about this."
If farmers feel like the favored child who has
been pushed aside by the university, until very recently
environmentalists felt they had no working relationship with the
university at all.
"Their whole focus has been
chemical-intensive farming," said Cha Smith of the Washington
Toxics Coalition. Extension agents often take that message into the
field. "They are often little conduits of the chemical industry,"
she said. Others charge the university's research and extension
scientists with resisting sustainable agriculture projects
initiated by groups from outside.
(them) very critical of my group working with growers," said
Gwendolyn Bane, a program associate with the Northwest Coalition
for Alternatives to Pesticides. Her program awards grants to red
raspberry producers who investigate alternatives to pesticides in
"Our presence intimidates them," she
said. "It's not just that they feel we should be leaving research
monies to researchers. They may feel we've been indicting them on
the jobs they've been doing in the past. And it's true. They
haven't done a good job in sustainable agriculture. I've certainly
asked them the whole time, and they haven't come along. The
land-grant university is lagging behind."
university hoped the proposed Center for Sustaining Agriculture and
Natural Resources would help it serve both its agricultural and
environmental constituencies. But after the 1991 legislative
session, the future looked bleak for Washington State's proposed
center. It's original title as a center for "sustainable"
agriculture had proven to carry too much political baggage; it had
been changed to the less-threatening "sustaining" before it even
hit the floor of the legislature. After the legislature denied its
request for funding, the university did a surprising thing: It
established the center anyway. The ag college skimmed money from
other programs to pay David Granatstein, the center's statewide
coordinator, as well as three part-time employees.
With a mission to foster agriculture that was
"economically viable, environmentally sound and socially
acceptable," the center staff set to work. They started a
campus-wide composting program on the main campus at Pullman and
taught a class on composting. They investigated the use of human
waste as a fertilizer. They joined forces with other academic,
agricultural and environmental groups to investigate whether
consumers are willing to pay more for "sustainably raised" produce.
And Granatstein is doing on-farm research with a polymer that
reduces erosion on tilled land.
"When you don't
have a great deal of operating dollars I think you become
innovative," said David Bezdicek, a university soil scientist and
the center's part-time director.
Part of the
center's function is to build bridges between faculty within the
university, and between agricultural and environmental interests
outside it. For example, Granatstein has worked with Gwendolyn Bane
of the Northwest Council for Alternatives to Pesticides on the red
raspberry project. "It's a good first step," said Bane. "He's
helpful. I think a real strong point of their center is to network
and facilitate. His networking skills are good for the growers and
Within Washington State's College
of Agriculture and Home Economics, the center is in a good position
to bring about change, according to Bezdicek. "I can do things at
the center that I wouldn't be able to do as a faculty member," he
said. "As a faculty member you're in a discipline and you tend to
keep to that. You wouldn't be encouraged to look at new academic
He is developing an undergraduate
degree program in agriculture which would include environmental
issues, and perhaps attract students who would otherwise major in
environmental studies. The program would turn out graduates in a
state where agriculture is the second biggest money earner (after
the Boeing aerospace industry), but where few people have expertise
in both agricultural and environmental issues. Bezdicek says that
regulatory agencies like the state's Department of Ecology often
hire people who know a lot about environmental issues but nothing
Specialization is built into
the university system. Interim Agriculture Dean Larry James agrees
that the agriculture college needs to broaden its scope and become
more flexible. "Over the years, I think we've become inbred," he
said. "Our scientists are as fine as you'll find anywhere, but what
we need is an influx from sister disciplines." He uses horticulture
as an example: "Horticulturists keep training horticulturists. What
we need is to bring ... a fresh perspective on the problem. It's
not that we don't need horticulturists, it's that we need people
with a different perspective to give us a view of the problem. An
ecologist. A chemical engineer."
university's tenure system is still dominated by the quest for
research that yields published articles in academic journals rather
than information farmers can use to keep their chickens healthy,
and Bezdicek and others think its time for academics to be rewarded
for being useful.
"They basically do the type of
research that's going to get them publications in the short term,"
said Bezdicek. "I think we have to collectively define other means
of scholarship that involve not only collective efforts, but
James has a similar outlook: "I think
we've done research for the sake of research instead of trying to
solve peoples' problems."
university has asked the legislature to fund the center three times
since 1991. It has been turned down three times. Ganders doesn't
think they will ask again at the next budget session.
"Right now we're looking more at ourselves," he
said. "We've got to look at why is it we can't bring these groups
together. That's our job, especially as a land-grant institution."
The need for realignment in the land-grant
system has its roots in history. The land-grant colleges were
formed more than a century ago, when almost half of the people in
this country made their living from farming. It was also an era
dominated by the belief that all problems could be solved with
"The land-grant university is a
premier, highly successful example of the modern world. It applied
science to solving problems very successfully," said Karl Stauber,
deputy undersecretary for small communities and rural development
at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C.
"Agricultural production has gone up 1,400 percent in the U.S., and
it's done that largely because of the development of new science
and technology, a lot of which was developed by individuals at the
But while the technological
approach is still dominant, thinkers like Aldo Leopold and Rachel
Carson - whose beliefs rest on the interconnectedness of natural
systems - have had an impact on the faculty at land-grant
"Land-grant universities are really
struggling," said Stauber. "They have faculty members that are very
much interested in this integrative approach. But they have a
constituency calling on them for the same reductionist approach ...
the farmers are asking the old questions, they're asking questions
calling for the same old response, yet the societal pressures are
calling for (the land-grant college) to behave in a different way."
State Farm Bureau President Turner looks back at
the 1940s-1960s as the good years. "The university was doing
applied research. They were supporting us. We had confidence. Now,
to borrow a phrase from one of our farmers, "It's not fun anymore."
He said that the entry of the United States
into a world agricultural market makes farmers dependent on
research to survive economically because other countries can
underprice U.S. goods. "We can't operate with a structure that
makes us less competitive," he said. "We must have applied
While it's clear that the land-grant
universities did their job too well for the good of the many
farmers they indirectly caused to leave the land, they may also
have done their job too well for their own good. Rural political
clout has diminished. So the state legislators in Washington have
mulled over whether the system should be dismantled, and WSU's own
lobbyist, Larry Ganders, ponders whether the land-grant university
should be concentrating on agriculture in such a rapidly urbanizing
Interim Ag Dean James didn't want to talk
about the theoretical dismantling of the land-grant system. He has
other problems, like the fact that Washington State has the lowest
per-capita four-year college enrollment in the country. (-We're
50th. I mean, Mississippi is ahead of us. We're dead last." ) But
he did want to talk about a "visioning" process the ag college is
going through to make its curriculum more flexible, accessible and
interdisciplinary. It will incorporate the new environmentally
oriented degree program in agriculture the Center for Sustaining
Agriculture and Natural Resources is working
The college received $134,000 from the W.K.
Kellogg Foundation this year to determine what it would like to
accomplish by the year 2020. "This grant is going to provide us the
mechanism to do our soul-searching in a relatively non-threatening
way," said James. "The year 2020 was picked because most of us will
have had our retirement dinners by then, so it's not threatening to
our particular careers. We can talk about the future. It's kind of
third-person in a way."
Meanwhile, at a "Science
and Sustainability" conference organized by the university's Center
for Sustaining Agriculture last fall, the possibility of the whole
system unraveling was stared right in the
"Agriculture may survive, but farmers and
ranchers may not," said keynote speaker Deputy Undersecretary
Stauber. "Science, too, will survive, but land-grant universities
and related institutions may not. The U.S. is creating an evolving
view of the future that encompasses much more than just how people
farm; we are rethinking how humans relate to nature and their goals
for the future. ... No institution is likely to come through this
period without significant change. The more rigidly an institution
responds to the debate, the more likely it will suffer the fate of
the monasteries and nunneries."
The Center for
Sustaining Agriculture is an attempt at a flexible response to this
debate. The difficulties it has encountered on the way to
establishing itself as a bridge between agriculture and the rest of
society suggest two things: It's breaking new ground in the state,
and it has yet to gain a strong group of political advocates
because it is only beginning to prove its usefulness to
The center, which functions on about
$120,000 per year, is tiny. Ganders calls it "a shadow of a
Anne Schwartz, president of the organic
farmer's organization, Washington Tilth, said, "It's one tiny
program at the university that could disappear really easily. It
might be 10 years before they start having any significant effect."
Despite its size, it is attracting attention.
Its potential to develop common ground is so great, its advocates
are frustrated by its lack of resources.
to see the university say, "We want appropriations for that
center," " said Cha Smith of the Washington Toxics Coalition.
"There's no reason to say, "It's a bad political year, it's a bad
political year." What they're doing is putting more and more
growers out of business by not providing more
"Funding the center is key to the
future of the state," said Smith. "Boeing would never operate
without looking to the future. Why does the legislature think that
farmers can manage without having to plan for the changes that are
facing them? Carcinogenic pesticides will be out of circulation in
five years one way or another. It's just so backwards for them not
to see that this is the only way growers are going to survive,
especially small growers."