WASHINGTON, July 22, 2015 –Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, said the crowd that gathered on Capitol Hill last week at a hearing to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the designation of the 1890s land grant universities was the biggest he’d ever seen at an Agriculture Committee hearing.
In his opening statement, Conaway, the panel’s chairman, said that “the most significant feature” of the legislation behind the designation – the 2nd Morrill Act -- was that it required land grant institutions designated under the first Morrill Act of 1862 to admit black students into their agricultural programs, or else provide them with separate but equal education in order for the institutions to retain their land grant status.
After the Civil War, 17 schools in Southern and border states established land grant agricultural colleges for black students. In 1896, Congress designated Tuskegee University as a land grant under the 1890 law, and with the 2014 farm bill made Central State University in Ohio the 19th historically African-American land grant institution.
Like other land grants, the 1890s (as they are called for short) are leading the nation in agricultural research and innovation, witnesses told the lawmakers. A Florida A&M food scientist and assistant professor, Anthony Ananga, for instance, developed a method of eliminating three major allergens contained in a common variety of peanuts. The Food and Drug Administration is reviewing the genetically modified peanut, which has significant commercial potential, Ananga said.
Other 1890s are using university-owned farms to demonstrate local food production and to research organic farming techniques. North Carolina A&T State University, which ranks No. 1 in the nation for engineering and STEM-related undergraduate degrees awarded to blacks, has partnered with Wal-Mart to research and educate farmers on organic strawberries.
Even with private funding and grants, however, university officials told the committee members that money was tight.
Harold Martin, the chancellor of A&T, encouraged Conaway and his colleagues to ensure that states, which are obligated by law to match 1890s’ funding for extension and research activities, make good on their commitments. Between 2010 and 2012, Martin said, 1890s lost nearly $57 million in funding because states didn’t pay up.
Another significant funding source at risk for 1890s is provided through the Higher Education Act, which is up for reauthorization in September.
The universities are also facing an issue that witnesses called the “stereotypical image of agriculture,” which excludes blacks from positions as farm owners or operators and inadvertently leads young African Americans to pass by opportunities and jobs in farming.
Rep. David Scott, D-Ga., said the stereotype “must be erased,” and institutions of higher learning can begin that process by bringing more young black Americans into agriculture.
Agriculture is the source of “the food we eat; it’s the clothes we wear, it’s the energy, it’s everything,” Scott continued, and the future of agriculture, particularly in light of the rising average age of American farmers, depends on the engagement of new and beginning farmers.
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