If the West's land-grant universities are to evolve, faculty like Glen Whipple are keys to that evolution. Whipple is head of the Agricultural Economics Department at the University of Wyoming in Laramie. Just as important, he just spent 11 months as acting dean of the College of Agriculture. If you think of land-grant universities as churches, then the College of Agriculture is the main cathedral, and the dean is the archbishop.
Whipple is interesting because in
addition to being a conservative and cautious member of the
agribusiness establishment, he is a reformer. His drive for reform
comes from his months as acting dean, where he experienced the
heavy pressures for change on land grant universities. He is also
interesting because of his soft but steady approach to creating
change he thinks is necessary.
In most ways,
Whipple is a typical college of agriculture faculty member. He grew
up on his family's 80-acre Old MacDonald-type of irrigated farm,
with milk cows, chickens and row crops, in Idaho's Snake River
Plain. His childhood is one reason he's at the University of
Wyoming. Laramie, he says, is about as small a town as you can live
in and still work at a major research
Despite his appreciation of his
upbringing, Whipple believes it is more dangerous to limit the
scale of agriculture than to ride the twin tigers of technological
innovation and ever larger scales of
If the milk it produces is safe to
drink, he says, the synthetic milk-stimulating hormone BST (bovine
somatotropine) should not be barred. Whipple knows that losing
farmers to efficiency makes it less likely that a town will have a
hospital, or small businesses, or a high school. "And it is very
painful when a farmer has to leave farming. Often, the only option
is a job in the service sector with much less personal freedom and
But to shield dairy farmers is worse,
he says, because it creates inefficiency on farms and a perceived
property right that can haunt society later. According to Whipple,
if the U.S. bans BST and Mexico and Canada don't, then the U.S.
will have to use tariffs to keep less expensive foreign milk and
milk products out. And that sets off a dangerous political and
"If in the future the U.S.
tries to remove the tariffs, it will be taken as an attack on dairy
farmers, who by then will be dependent on the tariffs for economic
survival," he says.
Wendell Berry, the Kentucky farmer,
essayist and novelist, sees the small family farm, run by liberally
educated generalists, as the way to restore both the environment
and the vitality of rural communities. In The Unsettling of
America, he writes that sensitivity to the land can be maintained
only by having a relatively large number of people on the land.
Large-scale farming, Berry writes, has led to neglect of the land,
to the bulldozing of natural areas, to the cutting of trees because
they get in the way of equipment, to the filling in or eroding of
streams, and so on.
Whipple has not read Berry,
but he knows the small-farm scenario, and he believes the present
system can change enough to undo the environmental damage it has
created. Whipple says new technology, this time based on
remote-sensing satellites sending signals to machinery controlled
by computers, can provide the flexibility farmers need to
micromanage their land.
Instead of broadcast
spraying against bugs or uniform distribution of fertilizer, he
says, the satellite-computer-sprayer or spreader hookup will allow
fertilizer or herbicides to be used only where required, and in
precise amounts. He argues that technology can become as sensitive
to variations in the land as legions of Berry's farmers could
Such technology will not be cheap. So the
result will be more of what we have seen for the past century:
continued growth in the scale and capital intensiveness of
It is a trend that was started by the
land-grant universities. According to Whipple, the land grants and
their research and extension arms were established by Congress
because it knew agriculture was different from other
Agriculture, he says, cannot collect
"rent," the economic surplus accruing to industries that control
their production and prices. Congress knew, Whipple says, that
agriculture's research and development and education would have to
be funded from the outside. So it set up the land-grant
universities to educate rural and other working people. And later
it set up the agricultural experimental stations to do research.
Finally, in 1914, it set up extension to carry the research to
farmers and their families.
The system succeeded
in making agriculture more like other industries. Farmers still
don't control production and marketing enough to collect
significant profits, but agribusinesses - the chemical and farm
equipment manufacturers and fertilizer companies - do. And that
surplus allows these firms to do some of the research, development
and even education, through their field agents, that the colleges
of agriculture and extension once did.
industrialization of farming, Whipple says, didn't happen because
farmers wanted it to happen. He says the pressure to create the
land grants came from an urban elite that wanted to educate and
modernize America's land-based people.
resistance. But the power of industrialization, specialization,
research and large capital investment won the day. Together, those
forces did in America's landed peasants, pushing millions of
families off the land and into factories and shops.
It wasn't gentle, especially for the blacks and
whites who streamed north out of the south. But it was gentler than
Stalin's methods, in which millions of farmers, or kulaks, were
killed and their land collectivized. And it came much sooner than
in Mexico, a country just now grappling with the question of
creating a larger-scale agriculture.
If agriculture as a whole is now
capable of doing its research and education, does that mean
land-grant universities are losing their purpose? Whipple says that
the land grants' traditional job of making agriculture more
productive is today less important than new challenges they face.
The adoption of large-scale agriculture has created huge problems:
polluted groundwater; residues from pesticides and herbicides on
food, soil erosion, endangered species, dried-up streams,
diminishing aquifers, and more. These problems are accompanied by
pressure from urbanites who want pure food produced without impact
on the environment.
It is here - in the enormous
gulf between urban consumers and rural producers - that Whipple
believes land grants will find their most important niche. He says
they must continue to keep agriculture efficient and productive
while addressing society's demand for protection of land, water and
the diversity of species.
To do this, he says,
land grant researchers must transform themselves from disciplinary
academics into scientists who reach outside their departments to
solve problems. He uses his discipline - agricultural economics -
as an example. Originally, it concentrated on studying the
profitability of new farming methods and crops. Then it became a
separate discipline and expanded into finance, marketing, rural
development and the like.
But like almost all
agricultural disciplines, Whipple says, agricultural economics has
now turned inward, toward its core academic discipline and away
from other agricultural disciplines. Faculty do scholarly work and
publish the results in academic journals. More often than not, the
work they publish has little relevance to what farmers face in
their fields, and even less to larger societal problems.
Whipple believes he and other academics can
learn to work with other disciplines to solve on-the-ground
problems. Energized by the overview that 11 months as acting dean
gave him, he returned to his ag-econ department to initiate a
long-range planning effort.
He warns against
expecting quick change. Tenure, which protects professors' jobs,
gives faculty a lot of autonomy. Some describe academe as
12th-century anarchy: an expensive, ineffective anomaly in today's
turn-on-a-dime world. Critics of academe often start by calling for
the abolition of tenure, and the substitution of some other system,
which is never specified, to safeguard academic
Whipple prefers to work within the
present structure, pushing on the system but not overturning it.
Faculty, he says, are willing to take incredible creative risks,
undertaking research that may lead nowhere after years of work in
labs or the library. The security of tenure encourages these kinds
of risks, Whipple believes.
says, can fire legions of employees at will, or motivate them by
saying the firm is in trouble. But such tactics, he says, are
counterproductive in universities.
creative people. The threat of a funding loss most often paralyzes
The answer, he believes, lies in gradual
change within a collegial atmosphere. If the land-grant university
faculties are to change, they will change through the gathering and
analysis of data, followed by what will seem to outsiders as
endless discussion. This process, which Whipple has undertaken in
his department in the form of long-range planning, aims at the
creation of consensus on what the new direction should be and by
what norms the professors should be evaluated.