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Food Studies: The Trouble with Land-Grant Universities

150 years ago, the government founded land-grant universities to keep agriculture alive in the U.S. What should they be teaching today?

Food Studies features the voices of volunteer student bloggers from a variety of different food- and agriculture-related programs at universities around the world. Don't miss Claire's first post, in which she explained how a fiction writer from Brooklyn ended up with her hands buried wrist deep in vermicompost at the University of Minnesota.

Most of my classes—in the English department at the University of Minnesota—take place on what you might picture as a typical university campus: brick buildings, big quad, lots of students, lots of bustle. But twice a week, when I go to my farm class, I take a university shuttle for 20 minutes over to a different part of the campus, a part with more land than students, filled with acres of open space and hoop houses and greenhouses and even a cattle barn.

I know what you're saying: "A cattle barn? On a university campus?" So before I talk more about vermicomposting and permaculture and all that good farming stuff, I should take a step back and explain how it is that I go to a school that has a cattle barn in the first place.

The University of Minnesota is a land-grant university, a term I was vaguely familiar with before coming here, but only insofar as I knew it meant something, well, farm-y. In my experience in agriculture classes, we haven’t specifically talked about what it means to be a land-grant institution, but the concept underlies everything that we do. After all, the class I am currently taking wouldn’t even exist if it weren’t part of a land-grant university.

So what is a land-grant university? It’s literally a university that had land granted to it by the government in order to focus on the teaching of agriculture, science, and engineering. Land-grant institutions date back to the Morrill Land-Grant Acts of 1862 and 1890. Named for Justin Smith Morrill, a Vermont congressman and then senator, the acts gave federal land to every state for the explicit purpose of establishing a school focused on agriculture.

Interestingly, the Morrill Acts were largely a response to the Industrial Revolution; as more and more people moved to the cities to work in industry, and as industrialists made greater and greater—privately-funded—technological strides, the federal government wanted to make sure agriculture didn’t fall behind. Little did Morrill foresee the rise of industrial agriculture.

The purpose of land-grant universities, as far as I understand, is generally twofold: To educate future farmers of America and to produce scientific research to benefit agricultural progress. Today, every state, as well as the District of Columbia, has at least one land-grant institution, and many U.S. territories also have land-grant schools.

So that’s what a land-grant school is, that's why my school has a cattle barn, that’s why I'm able to get credit for digging my hands around in the dirt. But, in many ways, knowing what a land-grant university is raises a lot more questions than answers. Almost 150 years after the original act, what do we consider the evolving mandate of a land-grant school? Where do the ideas of organic, local, and sustainable agriculture fit into the land-grant system? And, most importantly, in this age of agribusiness, when I walk by the Cargill Building on my way to class, how is big money affecting both the curriculum and research at land-grant institutions?

Critics of the system, including sustainable agriculture luminary Wendell Berry, say that land-grant schools have departed too far from their mandate, emphasizing research to the detriment of teaching and land stewardship. What's more, when big agribusiness companies like Monsanto and Cargill are supplying grant money and donations to those same land-grant schools, there is the question of how objective that research can be.

That's just an introductory sampling of the systemic issues surrounding the land-grant institution. Despite the controversy, my individual experience so far has been nothing but positive. I am involved in interesting classes with engaged and deeply caring professors who are focused on organic, local, sustainable agriculture. I'm well aware, however, that my experience is very specific: I have sought out classes about sustainable and organic agriculture, by far a minority of offerings in the department. So while I'm digging in the dirt—and happy to be at a land-grant school that allows such hands-on experience—I'm also conscious of the fact that my organic tomato plant is just a tiny part of the larger world of the land-grant debate.

To be continued...

Claire is a student blogger for the Food Studies feature on GOOD's Food hub. If you enjoyed this, you can read more of her writing at her blog, Food Junta, and you should check out the rest of the Food Studies blogger gang, and their musings on table manners, meat substitutes, how to run a successful restaurant, and more.

Photos courtesy of the author.

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