History of the Land Grant System

Last updated 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, it’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. “Many farmers planted by the signs of the moon, they taught others the way their fathers taught them, and basically agriculture was hurting,” says Moore.

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.

“There was a realization that we needed to devote more scientific attention to the study of agriculture,” 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.

“The 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,” 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. “What 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,” 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, “Where do you find ag professors?” says Moore. Some schools gained the reputation of “book farming,” 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.

“The Hatch Act really got agricultural education started because they were disseminating knowledge to high-school age students in the early days,” 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.

“The Morrill Act established that it was okay to teach agriculture. The Hatch Act says it’s okay to disseminate knowledge of agriculture that is scientific. The Smith-Lever Act says it’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,” 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.

“Rural 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,” says Moore. “It’s one thing to learn scientific knowledge; it’s another thing to communicate that in leadership positions and our agricultural organizations.”

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. “The 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,” 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 education’s progress.


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