America’s Best Idea

July 23, 2020 in Research



America’s Best Idea

The land-grant university system is being built on behalf of the people who have invested in these public institutions their hopes, their support and their confidence.

President Abraham Lincoln – July 2, 1862

Over the years we’ve heard that the United States’ national park system was America’s “best idea.” The National Park Service notes on its website that the quote was coined by author Wallace Stegner, and the well-known documentary filmmaker Ken Burns directed a miniseries by the same name which may be how you are familiar with the quote. But what if America’s best idea predates the national park system by more than 10 years and was implemented in the 1860s? What if our country’s best idea was built not on the preservation of public lands, but instead on education?

The Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities (APLU) notes that the legislative foundation for a land-grant university system originated with U.S. Representative Justin Smith Morrill of Vermont in 1857 (he later served as a U.S. Senator). After some tweaking to secure passage along with changes in the political environment due to the Civil War, the bill was finally passed by Congress and signed into law by President Lincoln in 1862.

The original mission of these institutions, as set forth in the first Morrill Act, was to teach agriculture, military tactics, and the mechanic arts as well as classical studies so members of the working classes could obtain a liberal, practical education.

The Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities

The 1862 law authorized the granting of federal land to each state, which in turn sold the land and used the proceeds to establish the respective state’s university as required by law. Thus the name “land-grant university”, or LGU. Historically black colleges and universities were added in 1890 and tribal colleges and universities were added in 1994. There is at least one LGU in each state and several in some cases, depending on the additional institutions subsequently added to the system in 1890 and 1994. USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) provides an informative and comprehensive map of the LGU system. 

U.S. Land-Grant University System as of March 2019

So what is the point of the LGU system and how is it possibly America’s best idea? First, it made higher education much more accessible. But it also created an essential foundation for the nationwide network of state agricultural research stations (SAES) that followed through the Hatch Act of 1887. In 1914, Congress passed the Smith-Lever Act that established the Cooperative Extension Service (CES) which enabled agricultural research to be more effectively shared among research stations and disseminated to farmers and ranchers. Perhaps at a more tangible level, the CES is the principal sponsor of the 4-H Youth Development Program nationwide. 

As the LGU system made higher education generally more accessible, the SAES network made agricultural research more accessible to the nation’s farmers and ranchers. Since public research is conducted by taxpayer-funded research stations, it is also more transparent. This is critically important since most farmers and ranchers do not have the resources to conduct their own research. For instance, the objective trial results performed by a research station can provide valuable information to local growers about which varieties will best position them for a profit. Another advantage is that farmers, ranchers, and especially other researchers can see the performance and behavior of certain crops throughout the country. In other words, a local agricultural production region can leverage the research of others elsewhere for the benefit of its growers. For example, perhaps a russet potato more suited for French fry processing was developed in Michigan where it will not be utilized in that way, but it is picked up by potato breeders in the Pacific Northwest where most potato acreage is destined for frozen processing. Even if such a variety is not used directly for processing, perhaps it could provide important germplasm to create a new variety with more consistent shape, higher yield, lower sugar content, or some combination of favorable traits. 


The Economic Research Service at USDA reports that in 2015 only about $4.5 billion went towards public agricultural research, or 0.45 percent of the roughly $1 trillion U.S. agricultural economy. For comparison, $4.5 billion exceeds 48 economies in the world. Taken on its own, that is a lot of money, but in the big scheme of things, a half percent is a relatively small investment. And while private agricultural investment has been climbing in recent years, public investment has been on the decline. Understanding that financial resources are not without limits, it is incumbent upon us to be as efficient as possible with the investments we are able to make as a society. 

Even in the current economic climate, the remarkable achievements of U.S. agriculture should be not just appreciated, but celebrated. I doubt that even Congressman Morrill ever dreamed of the enormous impact his legislation would ultimately have on helping to establish the U.S. as an agricultural superpower.

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