Between past and future

Washington State University tries to get there from here

  • Barn drawing

    Diane Sylvain
  • Farmers began irrigating this formerly sagebrush-covered land around 1941

  • Tractor drawing

    Diane Sylvain
  • A sign of change: The composting program at WSU

    Washington State University

Note: this feature article is one of several in a special issue about land grant universities in the West.

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 Resources.

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.

But 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 proposal.

"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 environmental constituencies.

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."

In the 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.

"I found (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 the field.

"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."

The 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 researchers."

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 models."

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 about agriculture.

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."

The 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 teamwork."

James has a similar outlook: "I think we've done research for the sake of research instead of trying to solve peoples' problems."

The 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 technology.

"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 land grants."

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 colleges.

"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 research."

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 state.

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 on.

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 face.

"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 society.

The center, which functions on about $120,000 per year, is tiny. Ganders calls it "a shadow of a center."

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.

"I want 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 information.

"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."

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