Field Notes: Have land-grant institutions lost their sense of social mission?

Dec 7, 2012

This is the latest installment of Harvest Public Media’s Field Notes, in which reporters talk to newsmakers and experts about important issues related to food production.

For this edition of Field Notes, Harvest Public Media's Peggy Lowe spoke with Chuck Hassebrook, who is on the University of Nebraska Board of Regents and is the program director for the Center for Rural Affairs in Lyons, Neb., about the ever-increasing corporate funding of research at land-grant institutions in America’s big beef-producing states.  

Hassebrook told Lowe that he believes our land grant system has "lost its sense of a social mission," in part thanks to the infusion of big business funding at agriculture universities.

The Morrill Act of 1862 was the first law to grant land to colleges so that they might focus on teaching agriculture, science and engineering. Now there are more than 70 land-grant colleges and universities in the U.S., including Iowa State University, Kansas State University, the University of Missouri in Columbia and the University of Nebraska in Lincoln.

Here's what Hassebrook said:

If you go back to the founding legislation, the Morrill Act and others, there was a great emphasis on serving smaller farms. And I think that has been lost to a great extent in our agricultural colleges. The assumption is that if we continue to develop and improve technology and agriculture and improve the efficiency of agriculture, that inherently means that agriculture will become concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, that we'll have fewer farmers.

Hassebrook said corporately-funded research and technological innovations in farming have changed agriculture but not necessarily for the better: they have caused the number of farmers and the food share profit in the food system to shrink over the past 70 years.

We’ve developed more expensive inputs that farmers can use to farm more acres and to produce more on a larger scale. And in the process, the input sector has captured a bigger share of the profit in the food system. Farmers -- to use those technologies, on average -- have had to get bigger just to make the same income. And we’ve ended up with a lot fewer farmers.

But, Hassebrook argued that farmers can still be more efficient and more productive without putting all of their money into expensive inputs. Instead, land-grant universities should invest in and develop knowledge to help farmers manage their crops, soils and the livestock more intensively -- without pricey inputs.

"That's a way of improving efficiency that actually puts a premium on the presence of the farmer providing skilled labor," he said, "and in-the-field, in-the-barn management."

Lowe talked to Chuck Hassebrook for a story she's working on for Harvest Public Media's five-part series "America's Big Beef," which is an in-depth look at the billion-dollar cattle industry. The series launches on Monday.