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The Morrill Act: 153 Years of Innovations for American Agriculture

Posted by Sonny Ramaswamy, Director, National Institute of Food and Agriculture in Initiatives
Jul 02, 2015
Justin Smith Morrill portrait
Justin Smith Morrill served as a Vermont Representative and Senator from 1855-1898. He is best known for authoring the Morrill Act in 1862, which created the land-grant university system, and the Second Morrill Act in 1894, which expanded the system to include historically black colleges and universities. (Historical photo)

July in America.  It is summer time and school’s out. It is about vacations and maybe a trip to the beach. It is Independence Day—the 4th of July—and parades and fireworks.  It is about barbecues, hotdogs, and burgers. 

2015 marks America’s 239th birthday.

July is also the month for another important birthday in America—passage of the Morrill Act on July 2, 1862, which established the land-grant university system, ensuring access to education for all people.

One hundred and fifty-three years later, this tradition continues across America through the network of 112 land-grant universities, which collectively educate the next generation of agricultural professionals and scientists and are helping find solutions to today’s most pressing challenges.

Land-grant universities are leading the way to ensure the growing population has access to nutritious food in the context of changing climate and the extreme weather events, diminishing land and water resources, and the need for ensuring positive health outcomes, while helping create jobs and promoting family and community well being.

There are literally thousands of examples of impacts occurring on the ground across our nation from the work undertaken by the land-grant universities.  Every day.  In every community in America.  And in many places across the world.

For example, 20 percent of the harvested wheat in the United States comes from varieties developed by a team of multiple land-grant universities led by the University of California-Davis. That adds up to $3.5 billion in farm gate value; conservatively the multiplier effect is worth approximately $18 billion to $35 billion being added to our nation’s economy!

Production of approximately one-third of all food and beverages in America depend on pollination, and many of our nation’s pollinators, including honey bees, are under stress.  This situation requires transformative approaches to protect pollinator health, which are being developed at a number of land-grant universities.  For example, the University of Maryland is working with beekeepers across the nation to help develop management practices that ensure honey bee health and survival; Pennsylvania State University scientists have recently demonstrated that a natural diet of pollen, rather than an artificial diet, makes honey bees significantly more resistant to pesticides.

Climate change and the recent extreme weather events, including droughts and flooding, are yet another critical challenge impacting food production.  Iowa State University is leading a team of researchers from 10 LGUs and USDA’s Agricultural Research Service who are developing approaches to help growers in the Corn Belt adapt to the effects of climate change, while also training 159 students to become the next generation of scientists who can help increase future food production.

The extreme droughts of the last few years and the diminishing ground water in California and other states are a clear indication that diminishing water resources are an existential threat for farmers, requiring innovations in water use in agriculture and food production.  An extension grower network set up by the University of Nebraska and including more than 1500 farmers and more than 1.5 million acres of cropland used innovative irrigation and water management technologies to reduce the amount of irrigation by 114 billion gallons of water each year – enough water to supply a city the size of Tucson, Arizona, for a full year.

These are but a few of the thousands of examples of contributions from the land-grant university system. Impacts such as these have had a profound effect for the past 153 years and are woven in the existence of America and American Agriculture, thanks to the Morrill Act, which created the land-grant universities in America.

Happy Birthday, America!

Happy Birthday, Land-Grant Universities!

Category/Topic: Initiatives