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Why More Students Are Passionate About Agriculture

 Farm Pennsylvania 

This article originally appeared at Chronicle.com. 

In the front hall of the American Gothic cottage that Justin Morrill built in Strafford, Vt., hangs his meticulous, hand-drawn plan for its gardens and orchards. It dates to the late 1840s. Morrill, a blacksmith's son who never attended college, had enjoyed a successful career as a merchant, and he retired to his hometown at 38 to marry and indulge his passion for horticulture on a 50-acre hillside farm. He planned to try growing a wide variety of plants and trees, in addition to raising sheep and cattle, and his neighbors were welcome to visit to see the progress of his various experiments.

You could say that the map Marissa Keys is holding as she leads the way across a field here this afternoon is a descendant of Morrill's tidy garden outline. Ms. Keys, an agroecology major at Pennsylvania State University, is part of a joint Penn State-U.S. Department of Agriculture team studying ways to make the crops that feed dairy herds more sustainable. The map of the team's 13-acre project shows a patchwork of plots testing rotations of crops, herbicide levels, methods of distributing manure, and kinds of farm equipment—all with the aim of controlling weeds and pests effectively, cheaply, and safely while producing plenty of healthful food for the cows.

One of the team's many experiments will test canola as a winter cover crop. "It breaks pest and weed cycles," Ms. Keys says, adding that you can then press the canola to make biodiesel fuel for your tractor, as well as feed your cows canola meal.

Almost everything on this 2,000-acre spread of university land plays some role in research. Pieces of slate in the field can be lifted to count bugs and worms that have taken refuge beneath. On a slope nearby are plots set up so that the amount of moisture lost to the soil can be precisely calculated. Even the tractors here are research tools, says Bruce McPheron, dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences at Penn State. The university worked with New Holland, the equipment maker, to prove that biodiesel fuel would not harm the company's engines.

All of this is, in a sense, Morrill's doing. He did not live out his days in Strafford as planned. Elected to Congress in 1854, he soon took the lead in pressing legislators to grant land to the states for the creation of agricultural colleges. President James Buchanan vetoed the first bill Morrill got passed, in 1859, but on July 2, 1862—150 years ago next month—Abraham Lincoln signed Morrill's second agriculture-school bill into law. Along with another measure he championed, in 1890, it created a system of land-grant colleges that rooted agriculture firmly in university research and helped democratize American higher education, creating institutions not for the sons and daughters of the upper classes but for the children of farmers.

Morrill's vision was that land-grant colleges could teach students to "feed, clothe, and enlighten the great brotherhood of man." As land-grant-university officials prepare to visit Washington this month to celebrate their institutions on the National Mall during the Smithsonian Institution's annual folklife festival, they say that the agriculture colleges that are at the core of Morrill's mission are more popular with students than they've been in decades, and that the institutions' pathbreaking research and teaching are more critical than ever in a world facing huge population increases, climate change, and shortages of energy, water, and food.

Read the rest at Chronicle.com. 

Image of a farm outside State College, PA, by Nicholas_T, licensed under Creative Commons