From the Morrill Act, research; from research, prosperity

Date posted: August 26, 2012

David SmithBecky Kirkland photoDr. David Smith stops by N.C. State University's 1,500-acre Lake Wheeler Road Field Laboratory.

The Morrill Act helped make publicly funded research possible, and that research ushered in an era of American prosperity.

A funny thing happened on the way to educating “the industrial classes” in “agriculture and themechanic arts,” which is what the Morrill Act set out to do 150 years ago.

The institutions charged with doing the educating, the land-grant colleges that the Morrill Act allowed each state to create, developed laboratories and publicly funded research programs in addition to classrooms.

While providing a means to educate vast swaths of the population who would otherwise not have had access to higher education was doubtless an important element in building the nation, so too were the discoveries that came out of land-grant labs, particularly where agriculture is concerned.

Which is why Dr. David Smith, associate dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and director of the North Carolina Agricultural Research Service, describes the Morrill Act as “the single most impactful economic development legislation in the history of this country.”

When Congress passed the Morrill Act in 1862, half of Americans lived on farms. But farming tended to be subsistence in nature. Americans farmed in order to feed themselves. Agriculture was not necessarily a livelihood.

Smith contends that the research programs the Morrill Act made possible produced discoveries that transformed American agriculture and made farming more efficient, which allowed members of farm families to move to cities, where they took jobs in industry and became part of the nation’s industrial revolution.

“Before you can have an industrial revolution, you have to have an agricultural revolution,” says Smith, who speaks from the perspective of what he calls a “historical agronomist.”

Dr. David Smith

Becky Kirkland photo

Smith visits the NCSU Beef Education Unit. With support of university research and extension, raising animals -- poultry, hogs, horses, beef and dairy cattle and more -- has become the most valuable segment of North Carolina agriculture. Today, animal agriculture accounts for about 65.9 percent of the state's total farm cash receipts.

Indeed, before Smith was an administrator, he was an extension tobacco specialist, so it’s not surprising that tobacco is among the examples he notes of agricultural efficiency made possible by land-grant research. Tobacco is a notoriously labor-intensive crop, and according to Smith, in 1940 producing a pound of tobacco required 45 minutes of labor. Today, it takes two minutes or less of labor to produce a pound of tobacco.

“That’s amazing,” says Smith. “It’s a huge gain in efficiency.”

Similar gains in agricultural production efficiency have been realized for all major agricultural commodities, plant and animal, thanks largely to land-grant research.

For example, for the five-year period from 1958 to 1962 the average North Carolina corn yield was 50 bushels per acre, Smith points out. From 2003 to 2007, the average corn yield in the state was 100 bushels, while some of the state’s farmers now produce 300 bushels per acre.

“Yields of all the major crops have either doubled or tripled over the last 70 years,” Smith says.

Productivity gains have been realized primarily through research in breeding and genetics (with both plants and animals), improved nutrition, pest management, mechanization and post-harvest handling, Smith adds.

There is some irony in the fact that the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Act and the attention the anniversary focuses on the impact of the legislation come at a time when the recessionary economy has scaled back investment in land-grant research programs significantly. At the same time, a long-running debate about the relative value of public versus private-sector spending appears to be a central element in this year’s political campaigns.

Where agricultural and life sciences research is concerned, Smith does not believe the decision should be either public or private. Rather, he sees different goals for public and private sector research and thinks the two complement each other.

“What I would argue from the agricultural side is that consumers and farmers benefit from the sum total that’s spent on research, both on the public side and the private side,” says Smith.

He adds, “I think what public institutions like CALS bring to the mix is that we work on different things than industry does. Industry does research and development to help the company’s bottom line. Their research is for the most part built around products, whereas, I think what universities bring is the discipline expertise, why things work the way they work and how.”

He points to herbicide tolerance in crops as an example. Farmers have embraced what are known as Roundup Ready crops, crops that are able to tolerate Roundup herbicide. Because the crop is herbicide tolerant, farmers can spray it with herbicide to control weeds, making weed control easier and more efficient. Roundup Ready crops were developed by the private sector, by Monsanto.

Yet some weeds have developed resistance to glyphosate, the active herbicide in Roundup, lessening the usefulness of Roundup Ready crops. University research is helping growers deal with herbicide resistance in weeds so growers can continue to plant Roundup Ready crops.

“We do some of the most basic research to understand the how and the why. We train the students who are working for industry, and we do the integrative kinds of research to get technology adopted and fitted into society,” says Smith. “I think you need both public and private.”

And despite the impact land-grant research has had over the last 150 years, Smith said research is needed now more than ever.

Society in the global sense faces a range of challenges associated with global population growth, from food production to environmental degradation and fuel production. Smith points out that the world’s population is expected to increase by 2 billion people by mid-century. This growth is expected to put tremendous strains on existing systems. We will need more food (50 to 100 percent more, most experts think) and more energy, while providing for human health and well-being and economic development and protecting the environment may also be more difficult.

Smith sees agricultural and life sciences research playing a central role in meeting these challenges and argues for a continued investment in publicly funded research. He points to the cumulative nature of research, explaining that the “breakthrough” is typically research that has built on previous research, which may not have collected headlines.

“I think you have to do the research now to be prepared for the future,” says Smith.

Land-grant research has contributed significantly to the standard of living Americans now enjoy. Smith sees land-grant institutions like N.C. State University well-positioned to continue to provide research that benefits not only Americans but people around the globe.

“We don’t have a dog in the fight other than to search for the truth. That’s really what our job is, to seek the truth,” Smith says. “I don’t know how the public cannot benefit from that.”

-Dave Caldwell

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