This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Land Grant system of colleges and universities — more than 100 educational institutions across the country that have played a key role in securing the nation’s leadership in research and technology.
“Residents of our farm states know the importance of their contributions to the development of the U.S. agriculture industry, which is today one of America’s largest employers, with more than 2 million farmers and about 19 million people in allied industries generating a $1.8 billion foreign trade surplus,” Mark Keenum, president of Mississippi State University, and John Carlin, former Kansas governor and a visiting professor and executive in residence at Kansas State University, have written in observance of the milestone.
“Land Grant institutions apply agricultural and scientific expertise to better the lives of Americans in many ways,” they note. “And the influence of these institutions extends well beyond our borders to address major food security and environmental challenges around the world.”
During the past century and a half, they point out, Land Grant institutions have been instrumental in advancing U.S. agriculture, making U.S. farmers leaders in agricultural efficiency and productivity.
And on the international scene, the knowledge and techniques developed by these colleges and universities is helping farmers in poor countries to better deal with pests, bad weather, and other problems, and to take advantage of new markets for biofuels.
“Under a U.S. Agency for International Development program, a Mississippi State University food scientist is bringing important know-how to the food canning industry in Malawi, helping local producers increase the quality and marketability of their products,” Keenum and Carlin note. Other programs by other institutions are helping livestock herders in Kenya and agricultural Extension in Afghanistan.
But, they say, while they have helped address many historical and modern agricultural and scientific challenges, the Land Grant system itself now faces “enormous challenges.”
Federal funding, essential to keeping agricultural research programs on the cutting edge, has been flat for many years “and in this difficult economy is constantly under threat of drastic cutbacks,” they say. “Hard-pressed state governments are cutting education funding, leading some state universities to close or sharply reduce their agriculture schools or departments.
“In some cases, the private sector has stepped in to fill the funding gap, but while these investments can stimulate valuable activities, they cannot be relied on to help the Land Grant institutions continue their legacy of basic scientific research.
“Such cutbacks in capability could not come at a worse time. Amid intensifying global economic competition, environmental challenges and concerns about the food supply, the scientific research and other activities of Land Grant colleges and universities are needed now more than ever.
“With a track record like this, and so many challenges before us, now is the time to reinvigorate our support for America’s Land Grant colleges and universities. They have served the county and the world well for the past 150 years. Let’s give them the capacity to lead for the next 150 years.”