WASHINGTON ― This week marks the commemoration of the 125th anniversary of the Second Morrill Act, signed on August 30, 1890. In that Act, Congress set aside lands to create agricultural colleges and universities in former Confederate states, with the provision that some be dedicated to the instruction of African-American students. Those institutions later evolved into some of today’s historically Black colleges and universities, such as the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, and Tuskegee University.
Representatives from Congress, the land grant universities, and agricultural industries are gathering for a two-day observance of the Act and the subsequent accomplishments of the land grant universities and colleges, or the “1890s,” since their origins at the end of the 19th century.
The House Committee on Agriculture held a hearing Wednesday at which six land grant university presidents gave testimony on the accomplishments of their schools and their plans. They also pointed out all the many ways that they are actively engaged with the agricultural needs of the states and communities they are located in.
In their opening remarks at the hearing, presidents cited some of the industry specific problems their institutions have tackled. At Prairie View Agriculture and Mechanical University in Texas, for example, faculty has researched issues such as improving the shelf life of dairy products and the various health properties of medicinal plants, among much else. At Georgia’s Fort Valley State University, researchers looked into how to reduce the risk of foodborne illnesses and how to increase the longevity and health of peach trees.
As the manifold projects of the land grant universities would suggest, agriculture is an extremely relevant industry within the U.S. economy. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), agriculture and related industries added $789 billion to the GDP in 2013, or 4.7 percent of the total.
However, as is the case with many HBCUs, the 1890s say they could do more if their funding from the states were increased, even though they already do a great deal in terms of research and outreach for their local communities and the world.
A report out earlier this year from the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities (APLU) found that 10 southern states withheld close to $57 million in state appropriations to more than half of the 1890 schools between 2010 and 2012. The USDA provides funding for the 1890s under a “one-to-one” match. States are supposed to match the funding but are not penalized for failing to do so. However, if the states do not match the funding, the school is on the hook for 50 percent of the grant.
Rep. Alma Adams (D-N.C.) said that states withholding funds from 1890s was an issue of fairness.
“We need to look at that a little more seriously,” she said. “I won’t dwell on (it), but it’s been a lot of money that our schools have lost, and I think, in terms of the research and the other kinds of things that they could be doing, (the 1890s) do need this money.”
At the hearing, Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.) proposed amending the language of a USDA grant that USDA Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Joe Leonard announced in February. USDA made $18 million available to the 1890s land grant institutions. Schools were able to apply for funds for teaching, research and extension.
Scott proposed adding a fourth category: student scholarships and student loan forgiveness. He said that this might inspire more African-American students to attend the 1890s and consider agriculture as a career. He expressed concern that farmers are growing older, without a younger generation rising up to take their place.
“Knowing that the average age of agricultural farmers in the United States is 60 years of age, ladies and gentlemen, this is a national security issue. Agriculture is the food we eat. It is the clothes we wear. It is our energy,” he said.
Rep. Rick Allens (R-Ga.) asked the presidents what Congress might do for the 1890s, other than provide more funding.
Jessica Bailey, Fort Valley State acting president, said it would be helpful to promote agriculture as a potential career, starting in K-12. “Agriculture is not Google,” she said, adding that tech careers tend to hold more appeal for the youth today. Nevertheless, she said, agriculture and related industries do offer a wide array of potential careers and students could benefit from learning about their options before they graduate from high school.
“As we celebrate this momentous 125th anniversary of the signing of the Second Morrill Act of 1890, we look back with pride on our accomplishments, and forward to the many challenges that our 1890 universities can and will address with your continued support. Strategic investment in the 1890 is an investment in the future,” said Dr. Juliette B. Bell, UMES president.
Staff writer Catherine Morris can be reached at [email protected].