You won’t find much about the land-grant death spiral in a search of Google, nor any library in the world, I suspect. You won’t hear much about it at any public forum in the country, but behind closed doors at NASULGC (National Association of State Universities and Land Grand Colleges) meetings it has been a topic of discussion for over a decade.
Too few farmers know about the problems of land grant universities, nor how the demise may be a mirror for what is down the road for American agriculture — most live it, but don’t see it.
Rightfully so, some contend agricultural researchers, teachers and Extension specialists do the same things their predecessors did and so on and so on without generating anything really new or beneficial for farmers. The Romans had a term for academicians praising academics: asinus asinum fricat. Roughly translated that means jackasses rubbing jackasses.
Every segment of our society has its share of dead-beats, land grant institutions are no different. However, as a product of a land grant university and a long-time employee, I can assure you there are plenty of dedicated professionals at every land-grant institution who are driven to help farmers, regardless of monetary or academic rewards.
The land-grant death spiral is fueled by a loss of revenue for agriculture, loss of interest in agriculture by a high majority of the public, de-emphasis of agriculture in education, and the increased influence by big business and big government in agricultural policy.
The result has been compared to falling off a tall building, the descent is slow at first and the fresh air rather refreshing, then the ascent becomes faster and the reality that something is desperately wrong turns from concern to panic as ground nears. By most assessments the proverbial ground is nearing and the resulting ‘splat’ from such a downward spiral seems unavoidable.
In a less esoteric sense take a look at the death spiral this way. Because of funding shortfalls, a Southern land-grant university decides that variety testing no longer merits management by a senior researcher/professor. These tests are relegated to graduate students, then technicians, then ended all together. There is no need for a faculty member to work with the various crops tested, nor the support work that goes into it, so two or three or four or more faculty positions are eliminated.
Since these research positions are tied to Extension positions, gone are two or three or more Extension specialist positions. Without the specialists what good are ANR (agriculture and natural resource agents) at the county level. Since the teaching program in a land-grant college is supposed to be supported by research and outreach, what is the need for teaching programs, so these are dramatically cut back. With no facilities for research needed, these are eliminated, so there are no facilities for cooperating scientists from the USDA or APHIS or other federal agencies.
In subsequent generations, there is no masters or doctoral training programs for scientists to conduct agricultural research. In the longer-term there is no support system, other than those set up for profit. Splat!
The history of agriculture’s academic support system is finite. In 1862, the Morrill Act created funding for land-grand institutions in each state. In 1887, the U.S. Congress passed the Hatch Act, creating funding for agricultural experiment stations in each state. In 1914, the Smith Lever Act created funding for the Cooperative Extension System. And, in 1917 the Smith Hughes Act brought agriculture to the classroom.
In the Southeast, enlightened politicians like Alabama Governor Braxton Bragg Comer got a jump on Federal programs. In 1907, he allocated $4,500 for each high school in the state to teach agriculture, stipulating that $750 of this go for student agricultural research projects. In 1908, Georgia and Virginia followed suit with similar programs.
By comparison with the former influence of agriculture in secondary education, a recent study of high school students as part of the Farm City Week program, the question was asked, “Where does bacon come from? Fourth, behind grocery stores, refrigerator and cows; came the correct response.
All these programs combined to make America the most efficient agriculture economy in the World. By 1940, over 30 million Americans made a living on the farm. Along with efficiency came progress, and subsequently change. By the time of the second Gulf War less than two million farmers remained in the U.S.
While the non-farming public fumes about the high price of food, few realize that in the U.S. we are the only country in the world that spends less than 10 percent of disposable income on food. Sure, a trip to the super mart costs infinitely more money these days, but then again we don’t eat hairspray, car tires, and any home furnishing known to mankind that are sold in the super mart. Factor out what is food and what is not, compare that to today’s income, and the relative price of food is much lower than in any of the ‘good old days’.
No matter how large or how small the scope of a farm operation, future successes in agriculture will be directly related to the infrastructure that supports it. The continued downward spiral of our land-grant institutions is robbing agriculture of this much-needed infrastructure. Once research, teaching and Extension programs are gone, these are generally gone for good. Likewise, once tractor dealerships, farm credit offices, etc, are gone, these too are gone for good.
Less than two million farm voices versus more than 30 million in 1940 may be fewer in number, but they can still be loud. The time for saving the land-grant component of our agricultural infrastructure is now, not after the ‘splat’.