The Land Grant System

Sometimes you become so familiar with a subject, so totally immersed, that you assume everyone knows as much as you do, that your knowledge is common knowledge. Then something happens to expose the fallacy of this assumption and you realize how misconceptions and misinformation could be influencing other people's perceptions. So it is with the land grant system.

I have had several conversations recently that revealed to me the need for more information on the land grant system and how it works. I am going to emphasize agricultural production in this article, but you should be aware that home economics (family and consumer resources), 4H, and community resource development are all parts of the land grant system.

Before 1862 higher education in the United States was elitist, only the sons of wealthy families were sent to college. Congressman Justin Smith Morrill of Vermont wanted to create an educational system that was more proletariat, that would in particular address agricultural and emerging industrial needs. Despite some ridicule and setbacks, the Justin Morril Land-Grant Act of 1862 was enacted and signed by President Lincoln. This legislation would develop at least one college in each state that would "teach such branches of learning as and related to agriculture and the mechanical arts in such manner as the legislature of the states may respectively prescribe in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in several pursuits and professions of life."

The act granted land to each state. The federal land was sold, the money invested, and the states paid each year from the income. This income endowed and supported the land grant colleges, bringing higher education within the reach of all who qualified, regardless of wealth. This was the first commitment by our nation to providing higher education to the public.

Agricultural instructors at the land grant schools quickly discovered that they did not have data to support their classroom instruction. Agricultural research was needed to provide this data, so the Hatch Act of 1887 authorized federal support to establish and maintain an agricultural experiment station at every land grant college. Most agricultural instructors had a joint appointment: classroom teaching through the college and research through the experiment station.

The original concept was that these instructors would conduct research on local, practical problems associated with agricultural production. Of course this concept has changed over time. In Texas we used to say that we were supposed to do basic research on local, applied problems with international significance.

The land grant college/agricultural experiment station idea worked well. New knowledge was being discovered through research and imparted to a new generation through the classroom. However, there was not a mechanism to distribute this new knowledge to existing agricultural operations.

The Smith-Lever Act of 1914 solved the problem. This act created the Cooperative Extension Service associated with each land grant college. Cooperative Extension was created "in order to aid in diffusing among the people of the United States useful and practical information on subjects relating to agriculture and home economics and to encourage the application of the same... Cooperative agricultural extension work shall consist of the giving of instruction and practical demonstration in agriculture and home economics and subjects relating thereto to persons not attending or resident in said colleges. . ." So Cooperative Extension was designed for non-classroom teaching. Split appointments between extension and research are fairly common. I am split 75% extension and 25% research through the experiment station, for example. Split appointments between extension and teaching are uncommon. In other states some people have a three way appointment; teaching, research and extension.

The cooperative in Cooperative Extension refers to the organizational structure. The federal government is a partner through the Extension System of the U.S.D.A. State governments are partners through their support for the land grant colleges and statewide Cooperative Extension. Finally, County governments provide rent-free space and usually utilities for the local county agent offices.

So there you have the land grant system: research to develop new knowledge, cooperative extension to impart this knowledge to the current generation, and classroom teaching to impart this knowledge to the next generation. This system has been a model for the rest of the world (we are currently consulting with Russia in developing a similar system) and is, in my opinion, largely responsible for the level of production in U.S. agriculture.

Remember that through much of the 1970s and 1980s agriculture was the only sector of our economy that had a positive trade balance with the rest of the world. I wonder where we would be if we had a program of cooperative effort involving government, universities and industry.

Jimmy L. Upton
September, 1994