History of the Land Grant System
February 23, 2014
by Mara Budde, Agri-View, September 6, 2012
2012 marks the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Act, the law that ultimately
led to agricultural education for the masses and the National FFA
Organization. Now, itâ€™s hard to imagine a time without agricultural
education and where society would be without it.
One hundred fifty years ago, about 400 universities existed, mainly liberal
arts schools, teaching Greek, Latin and the Classics. Only 10 percent of
these schools had a department of science, according Gary Moore, professor
of agriculture education at North Carolina State University.
In the mid-1800s, scientific agricultural knowledge was severely lacking.
â€œMany farmers planted by the signs of the moon, they taught others the way
their fathers taught them, and basically agriculture was hurting,â€ says
There were ways farmers learned new methods, through agricultural societies
and newspapers. Farmers would share their tips and tricks by writing columns
in these newspapers, but many times the information was erroneous.
â€œThere was a realization that we needed to devote more scientific attention
to the study of agriculture,â€ Moore says. This realization came to be the
major reason for the development of agriculture departments and colleges
across the country.
Vermont congressman Justin Smith Morrill saw this need and worked to start a
program to start agriculture, home economics and mechanical arts schools in
all 50 states, known as the Morrill Act of 1862 or the Land Grant College
Act. Each state was granted 30,000 acres of land from the government and was
to sell it in order to start an endowment for a college that served the
needs of the common person, not just the elite.
â€œThe idea was to provide education for the masses and how to implement the
best practices on the farm, in the mechanical business and in the home,â€
explains Kevin Keith, LPS Specialist for the National FFA Organization.
However, after the Civil War the land sold for less than expected, since
much of America was in shambles. Some of the colleges became underfunded
since land money was not invested wisely, says Moore. In an effort to
increase funding for schools, Morrill worked toward passing another Land
Grant act, but was unsuccessful due to the resistance from Northern states
protesting against segregated schools in the south.
An agreement was formed where Southern states had a separate school for
African American students. The second part of the Land Grant Act was passed
in the 1890s, leading to 16 extra schools in the South. A third Land Grant
Act was passed in 1894 for the purpose of cooperative extension in tribally
controlled lands, primarily in the West, North and Plains states.
Some of the 1890 Land Grant Act schools remain predominately African
American to this day. â€œWhat happened in the world of agriculture, a lot of
the 1890 Act schools found a unique niche and tried to primarily serve
low-income farmers, or niche farmers,â€ Moore says. Those schools may have
research programs that focus on areas such as goat production or
aquaculture, for example.
Many of the Native American schools have now focused on putting extension
funding to work in the life sciences areas, like nutrition, obesity and
other health studies and family and consumer sciences. Although some
specialize in agricultural areas, most of their needs were categorized in
the life sciences.
The question that arose along with the agricultural colleges was, â€œWhere do
you find ag professors?â€ says Moore. Some schools gained the reputation of
â€œbook farming,â€ where students were only taught out of a book rather than
hands on experience.
An act was passed in 1887 to fund schools to do research and share their
results, with the Hatch Act in 1887. This law gave agricultural colleges the
funding to do their own research and disseminate that knowledge. Some
schools even set up experiment stations for high school students.
â€œThe Hatch Act really got agricultural education started because they were
disseminating knowledge to high-school age students in the early days,â€ says
Moore. In 1914, the Smith-Lever act set up extension service for agents to
work with farmers.
The Morrill Act and other acts set the stage for organized agricultural
education in America, leading up to the Smith-Hughes Act in 1917, which
states that agricultural education should be taught in high schools.
Founders of the act, Hoke Smith and Dudley Hughes, both from Georgia,
decided that agricultural education and home economics needed to be taught
in schools at the secondary level.
â€œThe Morrill Act established that it was okay to teach agriculture. The
Hatch Act says itâ€™s okay to disseminate knowledge of agriculture that is
scientific. The Smith-Lever Act says itâ€™s okay to take this information out
to the farmers, and the Smith-Hughes act said that we should be teaching
this in public schools,â€ Moore says.
There was a provision in this act in which students were required to have a
farming project, which today is very similar to the Supervised Agricultural
Experience (SAE) program in FFA. Farmers were now looking to the students
for knowledge, but they had no way of communicating their methods. It was
decided that students needed a lab to learn leadership, public speaking and
communication skills to be able to relate their projects to the farmers.
â€œRural America was isolated, there was something needed to improve it
socially, so the FFA was established. It was called a leadership lab so
students could learn leadership skills to be able to go out to teach the
farmers. The young people became leaders and the FFA was the leadership lab
for these people,â€ says Moore. â€œItâ€™s one thing to learn scientific
knowledge; itâ€™s another thing to communicate that in leadership positions
and our agricultural organizations.â€
Another important act that continued agricultural education progress was the
Vocation Education Act of 1963. This broadened the scope of what ag
education was, to include areas like natural resources, horticulture,
forestry and food science. â€œThe Smith Hughes Act said that the purpose of ag
education was to prepare people to be farmers, and the 1963 act was to
prepare students to be agriculturalists,â€ Moore says.
No act has single-handedly developed agricultural education into what it is
today - all were needed to foster programs in schools. But the Morrill Act
played an important role in ag educationâ€™s progress.