Las Cruces, New Mexico, April 3 - John Owens, the dean of agriculture at New Mexico State University, is at the podium of the student union ballroom, stumbling over the word "exclusivity."
"Come on, help me out," he says,
flashing a smile at the audience. It's a trick, and it works - the
rows of ranchers, farmers, politicians and professors say the word,
then laugh as they hit upon the larger truth: This is not only a
university that is not exclusive, but one that actively resists
exclusivity. Land-grant universities like New Mexico State are
mandated to keep the interests of working, rural people at heart.
And New Mexico, which ranks 48th in per capita income in the
nation, and where one-third of the people live in unincorporated
areas, has no shortage of clients.
message is that New Mexico State is serving the state's working
people very well, thank you. He talks about the increasing number
of minority students on campus, the university's nearly
open-enrollment policy, and the cooperative extension agents who
help with everything from increasing pecan yields in Doûa Ana
County to establishing food stamps as legal tender in the Santa Fe
Owens isn't playing to the 200
or so New Mexicans who have traveled from all over the state to sit
in the ballroom, drinking coffee and occasionally waving at each
other. The real audience is the six-person panel at the end of the
room. They are agricultural experts who arrived yesterday. They are
members of the Washington, D.C.-based National Science Foundation's
Board on Agriculture. New Mexico State is the board's first stop in
a sweep of six colleges of agriculture. They will eventually make
policy recommendations to Congress on land-grant universities.
The New Mexicans are as defensive as a teenager
meeting a probation officer. Words like "assess' and "recommend"
mean only one thing in 1995: cuts.
Mexico State scientist stalked out, growling, "I know what we're
doing here. But what are they doing here?"
Another said, "To establish rapport and get
trust you don't just walk in and say, "Hi, we're the government,
and we're here to help." "
Galbraith said you can't understand an institution if you don't
understand the conditions that led to its creation. The land grants
were created more than a century ago, when this was a young, poor
country with a Western frontier and a distaste for the elite
European model of university education. These colleges would break
ground both in who they served and what they taught. They were
"agricultural and mechanical" schools for the working class; they
were a supremely democratic and anti-British institution. Writer
James Michener called the 1862 Morrill Act - the land grants'
enabling legislation - one of the three finest laws ever created by
By World War I, the land grants had
also taken on the reponsibility to house extension services which
would take the fruits of agricultural research into rural
Over the next century, the system
was spectacularly successful. The American farmer went from feeding
four people with his labors to feeding more than 50. With the help
of the land grants, industrialization took hold of agriculture. But
industrialization favored well-to-do producers, and then
corporations, over small farmers. Family farms got absorbed into
bigger operations. Agriculture, thanks in large part to the
land-grant system, started to leave rural people and environmental
issues out of the equation.
Rachel Carson first
blew the whistle on the environmental ills of industrialized
agriculture in her classic 1962 work, Silent Spring. But it was Jim
Hightower, in his 1978 book Hard Tomatoes, Hard Times, who first
revealed that the land grants had abandoned the working people they
were supposed to help.
"There literally has been
nothing personal in the land-grant community's effort over the last
30 years to replace men with machines and chemicals," wrote
Hightower. "Those workers are considered only as "units' or
"inputs," no different than the machinery that replaces them. It is
not that researchers have it in for farm workers; chances are that
they just do not know any."
spawned followers. The land grants have plenty of scrutiny these
days. Forward-looking agriculture groups have sprung up to help the
farmers who weren't being supported by the land grants - small
farmers, farmers interested in sustainable agricultural practices.
The land grants have taken a beating in the press, largely through
the efforts of farmer-authors Gene Logsdon and Wendell Berry. And
private foundations have gotten in on the game: New Mexico State
Dean of Agriculture John Owens points out that no less than 11
articles, visioning processes, or committee reports are currently
being drawn up on the future of the land-grant
Gradual and cataclysmic
then, does a system with 105 colleges, an annual research budget of
nearly 2 billion taxpayer dollars, and decades-old relationships
with agricultural groups, corporations and state legislatures,
change? Slowly, as a rule. As in nature, evolution in the
land-grant system is characterized by both gradual and cataclysmic
Sometimes nothing seems to be changing
at all. Take the example of George Wuerthner, a well-known Montana
environmentalist. He tells his story (page 21) of being frozen out
of a Montana State University Ph.D. program before he even
But, almost imperceptibly, old-guard
"cheap food at any cost" faculty who retire are being replaced by
scientists who grew up reading Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, and
even Wendell Berry and Jim Hightower. Extension agents are now
being trained in sustainable agriculture, an endeavor which is
being aided by sustainable grassroots groups from outside the land
grants, like the Alternative Energy Resources Organization (AERO)
in Montana. In 1988, The U.S. Department of Agriculture reserved a
special fund - now called the Sustainable Agriculture Research and
Education (SARE) project - exclusively for alternative agriculture
projects. But these earmarked funds amount to a drop in the bucket:
Of the $433.5 million the USDA contributed to university
agricultural research this yer, $8.1 million is in the SARE
Tenure has both helped and hurt. Or
perhaps it's more accurate to say it safeguards, but slows, reform.
On one hand, it protects plenty of academic dead wood - good old
boys with close ties to industry groups, coasting toward retirement
on the government dole. But it has also safeguarded people like
Lyle McNeal and Jerry Holechek, innovative scientists profiled in
this issue. McNeal, whose story begins on page 10, is helping the
Navajo sheep producers retain their culture and restore their
rangeland. Holechek has taken on the sacred cow of maintaining
cattle numbers on the public range. He says that Western ranchers,
and the range, would thrive if there were about a third less cattle
there. He appears on page 19. Both scientists have put up with much
muttering in their departments, but they've both been protected by
their universities. To the extent that it safeguards the freedom of
thought of its proven scientists, the system
Yet it may be that reformers who work
outside the structure of the land grants have a greater - or at
least more "cataclysmic'- impact. For all their inertia and
insistence that everything is just fine, the land grants are
looking for new ideas with the eagle eye of a Hollywood talent
scout. And if someone out there is doing something the land grants
think they themselves should be doing, they will jump on
Take the Practical Farmers of Iowa, organized
a decade ago because farmers weren't getting what they needed from
Iowa State University: on-farm research on sustainable agriculture.
They started doing it for themselves, and within three years Iowa
State came knocking at their door. Now they work
The courting can go both ways. Maverick
scientists have a lot to gain by aligning themselves with the
wealthy, powerful land-grant system. That is what Wes Jackson
Jackson is a geneticist who taught at the
University of California before co-founding the Land Institute in
Salina, Kansas, 19 years ago. He's spent the last two decades
researching the food-producing potential of unbroken prairie, far
from the confines of a university atmosphere. Last year, with
peer-reviewed scientific articles in hand, he courted - and won -
the partnership of Kansas State University, which lies 70 miles of
cornfields away from the Land Institute. That partnership will give
him the legitimacy he considers necessary to seek funding to align
agriculture and ecology. His story begins on page
Or take Kamyar Enshayan and Gene Logsdon, who
have been thorns in the side of Ohio State University's College of
Agriculture for years, insisting that it own up to its
pro-industrial bias and serve sustainable agriculture. As often as
not, their target was Fred Miller, the former head of the
Department of Agronomy and currently the head of the School of
Natural Resources at Ohio State.
on page 16, defending the agricultural status quo in what has come
to be called The Memo War. Bitter as it was, it is now history.
Four years later, Miller has changed his tune. This spring, in an
article called "Forces Driving Changes in Colleges of Agriculture,"
he wrote about "a new paradigm" in agriculture characterized by
"undergirding production agriculture with a social objective of
sustainability, environmental compatibility, and stewardship of the
natural resource base upon which both agriculture and our
rural-urban society are dependent for their sustenance, economy,
and ecological well-being."
One thing is clear.
Academics still write like academics. But it's also clear that the
land grants have been challenged. And in their own, ponderous way,
they are responding to that challenge.