Great innovations in agriculture — mechanization, improved varieties, better pest control and even satellite technology — have allowed farmers and ranchers to do more on less land and with less labor than a late 19th century agrarian could have imagined.
But events that transpired in 1887 provided a catalyst that made many of those innovations possible.
The Hatch Act, legislation that established agricultural experiment stations across the country, demonstrated the government’s commitment to production agriculture and to assuring the American public of a safe, consistent supply of food and fiber.
An item on the Mississippi State University Web site describes the legislation as:
“An act to establish agricultural experiment stations in connection with the colleges established in the several States under the provisions of an act approved July second, eighteen hundred and sixty-two, and of the acts supplementary thereto.
That it shall be the object and duty of said experiment stations to conduct original researches or verify experiments on the physiology of plants and animals; the diseases to which they are severally subject, with the remedies for the same; the chemical composition of useful plants at their different stages of growth; the comparative advantages of rotative cropping as pursued under a varying series of crops; the capacity of new plants or trees for acclimation; the analysis of soils and water; the chemical composition of manures, natural or artificial, with experiments designed to test their comparative effects on crops of different kinds; the adaptation and value of grasses and forage plants; the composition and digestibility of the different kinds of food for domestic animals; the scientific and economic questions involved in the production of butter and cheese; and such other researches or experiments bearing directly on the agricultural industry of the United States as may in each case be deemed advisable, having due regard to the varying conditions and needs of the respective States or Territories.
An Oklahoma State University Web site provides insight into the reasons behind the Hatch Act.
“The Hatch Act attacked general ignorance of growing conditions, helping to make American agricultural producers more productive. Research findings from experiment station systems across the country revised farming methods to fit the diverse geography of America and improved farm animals to meet public needs. Hatch Act funding has resulted in a federal-state research partnership that has largely removed the specter of hunger and the drudgery of subsistence agriculture production.
“Think of the Hatch Act as a sturdy bridge between the Morrill Act, signed by President Lincoln in 1862, and the Smith-Lever Act of 1914. The Morrill Act gave states authorization to sell public lands to create land-grant universities, which were to teach agriculture and the mechanical arts. The Smith-Lever Act resulted in the states’ Cooperative Extension Service, which ultimately took the findings of researchers from the universities to the fields of farmers.
“From its inception the system was designed to meet the needs of agriculture in specific areas and regions. But research findings seldom benefit just one location. More often they have application in many places, and some breakthroughs resulting directly from Hatch Act funding have literally benefited every man, woman, and child in the United States and much of the world.”
The “general ignorance” that prevailed in the late 19th Century has been replaced by U.S. farms that rely on some of the country’s most brilliant scientists working in diverse disciplines to create an industry that bases decisions on sound science instead of tradition and, in some instances, superstition. Experiment stations provide the foundation for many of those breakthroughs.
Countless innovations modern farmers use routinely are possible because of work done by the thousands of scientists involved in agricultural research at Experiment Stations on land grant universities across the country.
Progress has been significant. Consider achievements from four institutions that represent the Farm Press coverage area: Mississippi State University, the University of Georgia, Texas A&M and the University of California-Davis.
Mississippi State University
Dr. Melissa Mixon, Associate Vice President and Interim Dean and Director, Mississippi State University Experiment Station in Starkville, says Mississippi experiment station fertility work done in the early 1940s had world-wide implications.
“During the 1940s, scientists with the Mississippi Agricultural Experiment Station developed a method for applying and metering anhydrous ammonia into the soil,” Mixon said.
“The new fertilizer was released to the public in 1947 and is still an important source of nitrogen for crops around the world. The research success with anhydrous ammonia is considered one of the top 10 developments in modern agriculture.”
Mississippi State agricultural researchers have made impacts in other areas as well.
“More recent achievements by researchers with the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station (MAFES) at Mississippi State University include work with USDA counterparts on boll weevil control and development of genetically engineered cotton for insect control. Other MAFES achievements during the last quarter of the 20th century included advances in minimum tillage systems, development of new packaging and processing techniques for Mississippi products, and research in support of the catfish industry,” she said.
“Today, MAFES scientists are taking aim at development of renewable energy sources, including conversion of woody biomass into raw bio-oil.”
She said research — currently conducted by scientists in 13 MSU departments and 16 off-campus sites — constantly changes to meet current demands. “One fact, however, does not change: the MAFES commitment to the traditional land-grant mission of advancing the production of food and fiber, protecting our natural resources, and improving the quality of life of all Mississippians.”
Efforts don’t stop at the farm gate, either. Mixon said in addition to research “aimed at ensuring the continued economic viability of farms and agricultural enterprises, MAFES research also benefits urban residents and others not directly associated with agribusiness. MAFES’ focus on environmental issues, social issues, economic development, and improved nutrition, food safety, and human health directly benefits all citizens.
“Research in pest management, turf grass variety development, floriculture, urban forestry, and ornamental plants benefits homeowners and the state’s commercial nursery industry.”
Dr. William Dugas, Interim Director, Texas AgriLife Research, said the effects of research at experiment stations have been far reaching and include crop improvement across the nation. He said improved corn varieties, for instance, have made significant contributions to production throughout the Midwest as well as across the Sunbelt.
He said California almond growers have reaped benefits from work done at agricultural experiment stations.
“These and other significant contributions are directly related to experiment station efforts for 150 years,” Dugas said.
“Animal performance measures, such as weight gain per day, are significantly better because of research at experiment stations.”
Enhancing water quality and “assuring that the right amount of nutrients are used on crops and applied at the right time to make certain it doesn’t get into streams,” has been a focus of land grant university research, he said.
“In Texas, cotton, sorghum, irrigation efficiency (especially in the Lubbock area and the Lower Rio Grande Valley) have been targets for ag research. The 1095 onion and the Rio Grande Red grapefruit (with other partners including USDA and Texas A&M-Kingsville) have come out of the experiment stations.”
Dugas said more than half the Texas wheat acreage is possible because of work by experiment station researchers.
“Looking forward, we’ll study alternative uses for crops and continue to work with the green industry in turf and ornamentals. And we’re working on biofuels in genetics, harvest, storage and transportation.”
Neal Van Alfen, Dean, University of California Davis, College of Agriculture and Environmental Science, said agricultural research has been critical to feed the world.
“One of the great success stories of the 20th century was the ability of agriculture to keep ahead of the food needs of a very rapidly growing population on earth,” Van Alfen said.
“Much of the credit for this success must be given to the land-grant system of higher education, research and extension that was established in the United States.
“The agricultural experiment stations of each state were the key drivers of the research that served as the foundation of this amazing success story. This success was the result of major technological breakthroughs in plant and animal breeding, soil management practices, pest control, and mechanization.”
Van Alfen said to continue to develop the technologies to feed the world, agricultural experiment stations will need more funding.
“Unfortunately, the challenge of maintaining an adequate food supply has not ended, but agricultural research funding in this country has been significantly eroded. Given the incredible challenges we face in assuring the sustainability of our food system into the future, this erosion of investment is of great concern.”
He said research has created significant benefits for California.
“California has a vibrant and successful agricultural economy. Four decades ago the farm gate value of agriculture of California, Iowa and Texas were essentially the same; today that of California equals Iowa and Texas combined.
“California is a very high cost state for agricultural production given our land, input and labor costs and the strict environmental regulatory climate of the state, so success in increasing the farm gate value of agriculture relative to Iowa and Texas is remarkable.
“Much of this success is directly attributable to research of the University of California: the processing tomato industry exists because of UC Davis plant breeding and mechanization programs (a $1 billion a year industry); about half of the strawberries grown in the world are licensed to UC Davis; the wine industry attributes much of its success in moving from an artisan industry to modern wine making to UC Davis,” he said.
“The list of such successes is long and extends into most of the successful agricultural industries of California.
“California remains competitive in a global economy for its agricultural products because it is always at the technological cutting edge; the agricultural experiment station is a major contributor in keeping our agricultural industry at the cutting edge of technology.”
University of Georgia
Bob Shulstad, Associate Dean for Research at the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, says experiment stations through the land grant universities play a crucial role in developing new technologies for agriculture.
“Agriculture within the United States is diverse and decentralized and has no single entity for research and development,” Shulstad said.
“Thus the American agricultural industry depends on the land grant University system for new technologies and advances in production practices.
“The research programs in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at the University of Georgia have achieved a balance of both applied and basic work that meets many of the short and long term needs of our clientele.
“The Georgia Agricultural Experiment Stations and the UGA Cooperative Extension Service conduct scientific research and provide hands-on education to increase agricultural production; provide a safe, abundant, reliable, and affordable food supply; improve the profitability of Georgia’s agricultural industry, which is the largest industry in the state’s economy and a major supplier of food, fiber, and biofuels to the world; and improve the environment, including soil, water and air quality to keep the state in compliance with all federal regulations and to continue to make Georgia a desirable place to live and do business.”
He said balancing applied and basic research is always a tricky proposition as institutions weigh the immediate needs of producers and consumers against the long-term advances that will be necessary for future generations.
“The University of Georgia is one of very few colleges around the United States that have been successful in both applied and basic research,” he said.
“The federal research funds allocated to the University of Georgia through the Hatch Act allow our scientists to respond quickly to problems on farms, in processing facilities and in our communities.”
Moving research data into mainstream production agriculture poses a challenge.
“Integrated research and extension teams address production, marketing and policy issues for each of our major commodities: cotton, peanuts, forages, grains, soybean, turf, tobacco, and vegetables.
“Each team has an agronomist, entomologist, engineer, economist, food scientists, and plant pathologist who work together to address the current problems affecting Georgia and Southern agriculture.
These teams receive direct support from our Commodity Commissions (check off funds contributed by producers) but much of their salaries is generally paid from Hatch and Smith Lever funds. Earmarked federal funding and competitive grants also help address these issues.”
Currently, Shulstad said research in high tech agriculture in NESPAL (National Environmentally Sound Production Agricultural Laboratory) focuses on precision application and use of key resources.
“The precision agriculture team focuses on technologies and tools that have the greatest potential impact on production agriculture — precision water applications, aerial imagery and new sensing technologies for yield monitoring and pest detection.”
The Energy Team, he said, is evaluating potential bioenergy feedstocks for the Southeast, including sweet sorghum, energy cane, napiergrass, bermudagrass, and Miscanthus.
Shulstad said the Agricultural Experiment Station at the University of Georgia has the largest faculty of plant breeders of any university in the nation.
“Our expertise stretches from cotton, peanuts, soybeans, and wheat to warm season turf grasses, ornamentals, blueberries, pecans and new biofuels feedstocks. Federal Hatch funding forms the foundation for all of these programs. Every Hatch dollar is matched by state dollars and further leveraged through extramural grants and contracts.”
Shulstad said recent success includes development of an antimicrobial wash by the Center for Food Safety researches. The goal is to “reduce bacterial contamination of food at home and in restaurants, grocery stores, beverage-manufacturing and food processing facilities.”
It takes significantly fewer farmers today to provide ample food and fiber for both U.S. and foreign consumers than it did in 1887, when far less volume was needed to feed and clothe a much smaller world population.
Technology, improved production efficiency, better varieties, better pest management techniques and a better understanding of soils and plants have made it possible for farmers to achieve drastically higher yields and to produce much more with less labor.
Modern agricultural practices free most Americans to pursue other efforts, resulting in unfathomable advances in science, engineering and the arts.
For that freedom, farmers and consumers owe a debt of gratitude to progressive legislators who passed the Hatch Act in 1887and to the thousands of scientists and technicians since who have worked on the nation’s experiment stations to make life better for all of us.