From time to time readers complain about the research coming out of our land grant colleges. “It headed us in the wrong direction.” “It only serves the big corporations.” “It doesn’t consider what farmers and ranchers need.” These are comments I’ve heard over the years.
So why is that? Well one reason is funding. As Harwood Schaffer and Daryll Ray point out in their November 2018 piece for the University of Tennessee’s Agricultural Policy Analysis Center, we’re getting what we pay for.
To understand what’s happening, we have to go back to 1887, when Congress passed The Hatch Act. The Act provided each state land-grant college with $15,000 to “conduct original and other researches, investigations, and experiments bearing directly on and contributing to the establishment and maintenance of a permanent and effective agricultural industry of the United States, including researches basic to the problems of agriculture in its broadest aspects, and such investigations as have for their purpose the development and improvement of the rural home and rural life and the maximum contribution by agriculture to the welfare of the consumer, as may be deemed advisable, having due regard to the varying conditions and needs of the respective states.” The Act was amended in 1955 to add a formula that uses rural and farm population factors to allocate the annual appropriation among the states. States are required to provide at least a 100% match in order to get the federal funds (Wikipedia).
But since these funds only cover about 10% of the total funding for each experiment station, the rest of the money has to come from somewhere else. According to Schaffer and Ray, for the last several decades Hatch funding has been supplemented with federal grants “focused on particular crops/problems/issues and from private entities including foundations and commercial firms.”
There are two problems that have grown out of this funding set up. The first is that getting a grant is not easy. It takes a lot of time to write a good proposal, and Schaffer and Ray say it takes 4 to 5 proposals on average to land a grant. (That matches my experience in applying for funding for On Pasture.) Because of the workload associated with putting together proposals, land-grant colleges now have grant and contract offices to process applications, and that administrative cost gets wrapped into the proposal, reducing the actual amount available for research.
It might still be ok if federal funding had increased. And that’s the second problem. It hasn’t. Between 1970 and 2014, there’s only been a 20% increase in federal funding – from $3.5 billion to $4.3 billion (all in 2013 dollars). Meanwhile, during that same period, private funding increased 193%, from $2.1 billion to $6.3 billion. So it makes sense that researchers would be doing work that big corporations were willing to pay for. In their analysis Schaffer and Ray point out problems with this:
– Results are not available to the public, and private firms get the pick of the resulting products and patents
– By making land-grant researchers dependent on private funding, we end up subsidizing these commercial firms with public money. “They would be doing the research in their own laboratories if it were less expensive,” say Schaffer and Ray.
So how do we get what we want – research that focuses on the issues of direct concern to farmers, rural communities and the public?
We pay for it.
Schaffer and Ray suggest that we “would be better served if Congress were to significantly increase the level of Hatch Act funding in this and subsequent farm bills, freeing up researchers to focus more closely on issues of general concern.”
People who like to eat could probably get behind this idea. It just means that, as a country, we need to consider what we want and need to fund to meet our most basic needs.
What do you think?
Thanks for reading!
As the last few forage/grazing researchers are retiring from land grants, they’re not being replaced. Where is the publicly funded grass breeder? While grazing and forage research from public institutions was miniscule before it will become non existent in the near future.
in the mid teens through 1957, Laurence Graber was a UW Madison researcher he grew just south of me in Mineral Point, we can find all sorts of interesting research he was doing on grazing and forages in old mimeo’s. The 1948 Yearbook of Agriculture was all about grass and grazing. I found a copy of this in my grandfather’s library. Where would be today if all the energy, money and effort had been directed towards forages and grazing 100 years ago, rather than the pursuit of selling inputs to farmers?
Instead we had all these ammonium nitrate factories and less bombs to make, the factories needed to be repurposed so workers could keep their jobs. Industry needed more cheap labor for their factories, farms were the last bastion of available labor if we could make them more “efficient” we have more laborers.
“Many people blame science for our surplus of farm products. They say that science taught us how to grow two blades of grass where one grew before. I think the trouble is that is exactly what science did not teach us. Instead it taught us how to grow something else where two blades of grass grew before. Now we are beginning to see the weaknesses of an agriculture stripped of grass. More and more we are turning in thought and practice toward an agriculture in which grass will act as the great balance wheel and stabilizer to prevent gluts of other crops—to save soil from destruction—to build up a reserve of nutrients and moisture in the soil, ready for any future emergency, to create a more prosperous livestock industry, and finally to contribute to the health of our people through better nutrition.” Henry Wallace, 1940
John Marble’s comments about graduate students (“they are trained in the paradigms that support those very companies”) is a most astute in my opinion. It also applies to those trained in ag schools or universities who do not go on to graduate studies. Young farmers that I know can’t wait to apply for high tech, high chemical agricultural methods when they finish their studies. They often have barely heard of grazing or pasture-based poultry or pork production.
I think the co-opting of public institutions and functions by the private for-profit sector is a huge problem with wide spread repercussions.
Thanks for calling attention to this problem and putting it in front of us tax payers!
Beyond the troubling findings of Drs. Schaffer and Ray, there is at least one other insidious result of having our public research facilities controlled by Big Ag: brain drain. When our best and brightest students complete their graduate studies under the funding and control of private companies, they are trained in the paradigms that support those very companies. After graduation, many of those Land Grant College students go to work for the companies that funded their graduate work, and the cycle continues.
Dwight Eisenhower warned us about the dangers of being quietly subdued by the Military-Industrial Complex. The research above points us to another similar danger: the Agricultural-Industrial Complex. It also makes clear why so many people have doubts about the sincerity of the mission of our Land Grant Colleges.
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