Nation’s land-grant universities are source of education, ag evolution

Nation’s land-grant universities are source of education, ag evolution
RICHMOND—Past and recent agricultural graduates of Virginia State University and Virginia Tech have participated in a long-celebrated partnership between U.S. land-grant universities and agriculture.

Land-grant schools were established by Congress via the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890. The acts granted federally controlled land to states to sell to establish colleges that would teach agriculture, military science and engineering in addition to traditional classical studies. Most land-grant colleges became large public universities, and many are still known for their agricultural roots.

“Land-grant universities, in association with agricultural research and cooperative extension, are the foundation to everything done on the farm,” said Robert Harper, Virginia Farm Bureau Federation grain manager, former Virginia Cooperative Extension agent and a Virginia Tech alumnus. “More than 150 years of research has led to every development in agriculture.”

Justin Smith Morrill, the U.S. representative and senator who authored both Morrill Acts, intended the land-grant colleges to educate working-class Americans in practical subjects. The second Morrill Act prohibited racial discrimination in admissions for colleges receiving the federal funds and led to the establishment of land-grant institutions for African Americans. 

The colleges added a research function in 1887 through the Hatch Act, which recognized the need for original research to help develop agricultural innovations. In 1914, land-grant universities’ outreach mission was expanded to include the practice of sending agents into rural areas to share research results. In 1994, land-grants were given to colleges of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.

Virginia Tech was formed as Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College in 1872 and received funding under the 1862 Morrill Act. VSU was founded in 1882 and chartered as the Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute. The school received land-grant status in 1920.

Dr. M. Ray McKinnie, dean of VSU’s College of Agriculture, said he believes the land-grant university is and always will be the “soul of the public higher education system in America.” He counted among VSU’s agricultural strengths its alternative, innovative crop research and small farmer outreach programs. The College of Agriculture also has a large aquaculture program and is a Virginia leader in the fields of urban and sustainable agriculture and small ruminants like goats and sheep.

In order to stay relevant and best serve students and meet the land-grant mission “we need to get students interested in STEM subjects, because agriculture is no longer a singular issue,” McKinnie said.

That sentiment was echoed by Dr. Alan Grant, dean of Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

CALS students have the opportunity to launch futures as animal scientists, crop geneticists, dietitians, entomologists, landscapers and more.

“That’s the advantage of a land-grant university,” Grant said. “I like to call it a comprehensive university. … It’s no longer just agriculture and engineering; Virginia Tech is composed of multiple colleges, including a strong liberal arts program. When you consider the challenges in all industries, we need engineers and ag scientists and political scientists all working together to solve problems related to issues like land use and water quality.”

The CALS still offers traditional agriculture-related majors, like its two-year Agriculture Technology Program and its dairy and animal and poultry science degrees, but the growth of programs outside of production agriculture “has helped us gain visibility and has increased our impact,” Grant noted.

Media: Contact Harper at 804-290-1105.

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