During my time at Farm Press I have written a couple of times about the Land-Grant Death Spiral — the supposed downfall of the Land Grant System, which began in 1862 with passage of the Morrill Act by the U.S. Congress.
I spent a lot of my career at a Land Grant university. I believe in the system as it operated in the 1970s and 1980s. I wish I could do something to make it as beneficial to farmers as it once was. Some of the most dedicated public servants I know work at Land Grant universities. If you know one of these people, you should shake their hand and urge them to persevere — agriculture needs them.
The sad truth is that our Land Grant system as a whole is not getting better. And, it’s not just an isolated deterioration. My colleague Harry Kline, who is editor of Western Farm Press says the loss of key agricultural specialists at UC-Davis has created many problems for what for many years was considered the top Land Grant agricultural program in the country.
In my neck of the woods we just lost two of the very best Extension agents I know — Steve Brown and Joel Faircloth. Neither is upset with their job, nor with any of the people with whom they worked at their respective universities, but the direction the whole system is going is a primary reason they, and a number of other high profile Extension agents and professionals are leaving the Land Grant system.
It’s not just the high profile professionals who are leaving. In Virginia, Glenn Rountree, one of the very best agents with whom I have worked, recently left to pursue a career with Pioneer. Nationwide, Glenn is more the rule than the exception of bright young people who come into Extension work and leave for better paying, less stressful jobs in private industry. They don’t dislike their job or the people with whom they work, rather they come to understand early on that the system will never allow them to be the best they can be at doing the things they do best.
For those who don’t know, every state has at least one Land Grant university. Some states have two and a few have three. In some states these universities work together and in most they don’t recognize one another’s existence — a reality that will never bode well with the non-understanding, non-agricultural majority who pass legislation that determines how all state-supported institutions work. Working against each other for funds is never going to be as efficient, nor as acceptable, to legislators as will be working together for funding.
Joel Faircloth’s departure from Virginia Tech’s Tidewater Agriculture Research and Extension Center leaves an opening for a peanut and cotton specialist — Joel wore both hats. The sad reality is that if that job is filled, it will come only if enough influential growers and agribusiness people create enough heat to convince administrators in Blacksburg that this a good thing.
I left university work to get away from the seemingly never ending saga of administrators pointing fingers at one another in a seemingly futile attempt to stop the steady unraveling of agricultural research and Extension programs.
In the case of hiring a cotton and/or peanut specialist at Virginia Tech, he said, she said, they said is not going to accomplish much. If agriculture administrators at Virginia Tech are upset with applied agriculture and willing to withhold funds to fill this position, the best response might be to go back and look at the wording of the Morrill Act, then do what’s best for farmers of Virginia and ultimately all the people of the state.
In the meantime good people are expending too much time and energy trying to organize the troops to fight this administrative snafu and too little time doing what they were hired to do. Unfortunately this kind of scenario plays out every day at Land Grant institutions across America. The cumulative effect is to speed up the Land-Grant Death Spiral and make it a little tougher for America’s farmers to make a living.