Land grants under the microscope

Scrutinized from all sides, they defend their turf and look for new ideas

  • Microscope sketch

    Diane Sylvain
  • The good old days: Wash. State Univ. extension agent gives demo, 1923


Note: this feature article is one of several in this special issue on the West's land grant universities.

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.

Owens' 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 Dona Ana County to establishing food stamps as legal tender in the Santa Fe farmer's market.

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.

One New 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." "

A supremely democratic institution

John Kenneth 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 Congress.

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 communities.

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."

Hightower's critique 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 universities.

Change: Gradual and cataclysmic

How, 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 change.

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 began.

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 program.

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 works.

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 it.

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 together.

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 did.

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 14.

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.

Miller appears 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.

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