By DOUG SCHMITZ
AMES, Iowa — As the nation’s first official land-grant institution to accept the terms of the 19th century Morrill Act, Iowa State University has had much to celebrate – especially since the landmark edict turned 150 this summer and helped set the stage for such agriculture-based learning platforms as the National FFA Organization.
“The Morrill Act was a great piece of legislation that literally changed the lives of millions of people,” said Jonathan Wickert, ISU senior vice president and provost professor of mechanical engineering. “It was based on the idea of making higher education accessible to regular, hard-working Americans and their families.
“When the U.S. was first founded, higher education was very rare; it was elite and it was expensive. What’s really remarkable to me is that piece of legislation is only two pages long and it has created a system of higher education that’s the envy of the world.”
Signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on June 26, 1862, the Morrill Act granted eligible states 30,000 acres of federal land for each senator and member of Congress representing those qualified states, based on the 1860 census.
“Since the U.S. House of Representatives is proportional to population, that meant that the populated eastern states would get more land and had more votes to pass the legislation,” said Phil Durst, Oscoda County extension director and an extension dairy agent at Michigan State University.
“States would be given title to land within their own boundaries. Land within their states sold for $1.25 per acre, according to the act. If there was not enough land for that purpose, they would be given ‘scrip’ for land in Western territories. They could actually pick their land.”
Under the law, each participating state had to be committed to build institutions focused on educating students in agriculture – which later would create opportunities for them to participate in such nationwide events as the 85th annual FFA Convention, Oct. 24-27 in Indianapolis, Ind.
Today, more than 70 land-grant universities exist because of the historic act, so there would be “at least one college in each state where agriculture and the mechanical arts should be taught” to the future farmers of America.
“Land-grant universities have always been much more in tune with the state,” ISU President Steven Leath told the Iowa State Daily. “They focus their education and their research programs around helping the state, and training their students so they get jobs that contribute back to the state public far more so than the non-land grant” colleges.
Gary Moore, professor of agriculture education at North Carolina State University, said 150 years ago, only 400 universities existed, teaching Greek, Latin and the classics. Moreover, only 10 percent of these schools had a department of science, and 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,” Moore told Agri-View. “There was a realization that we needed to devote more scientific attention to the study of agriculture.”
Along comes the FFA
Established in 1928 by students, teachers and the agribusiness community interested in developing support for agricultural education in the United States, the FFA was first created when 33 farm youths held a meeting at the Baltimore Hotel in Kansas City, Mo.
In 1950, the 81st U.S. Congress, “recognizing the importance of the FFA as an integral part of the program of vocational agriculture,” granted it a federal charter. Then on Aug. 12, 1998, the 105th Congress passed H.R. 1085 (formerly Public Law 81-740), which revised some of the provisions of the law.
Eighty-four years later, the FFA has helped educate and launch the agricultural careers of millions of high school and college students who have proudly worn the official FFA jacket and recited the FFA creed. While there’s no direct link between the Morrill Act and the FFA, Moore said the act served as a springboard for such farm youth organizations as the FFA.
“Rural America was isolated; there was something needed to improve it socially, so the FFA was established,” he told Agri-View. “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. It’s one thing to learn scientific knowledge; it’s another thing to communicate that in leadership positions and our agricultural organizations.”