Morrill’s shattered dream

I have clearly thought about this week’s topic for far too long. With the passing of each week, it is getting pretty noisy in my head with not only the original thoughts but all of the new ones that keep popping up. I have long been a cheerleader, support arm and contributor for the land-grant system we have in this country.

It is the science and implementation of this great system that moved the United States into the lead on efficient food production. But the three-legged stool (teaching-research-Extension) has a broken leg. The question is, do we mend the break or put this crippled animal down?

While I still believe in the concept, I have more days than not where I see the things that are happening in many states and wonder why we don’t just quit wasting the taxpayer’s money. I just finished a very good discussion with Clint Laflin, one of the young Extension agents out in the field who told me he goes knocking on doors and stopping in coffee shops to find ways to connect with the folks that need the information that can be shared by the Extension program.

Here is the thing: Extension programs across the country have a tremendous number of highly motivated, skilled individuals who get involved because they want to make a difference. Former 4-H members want to share the experience they had growing up with the next generation of members. However, somewhere along the way they get tired of fighting the system and decide to just put in their time. They can’t complain about the system because they risk losing their job, their benefits or their reputation.

In my home state of Nebraska, we are living that train wreck. I have had some very dear friends who confide in me with the internal problems of the system but when it comes to standing up and being part of the solution, they are forced to go mute. They go mute because the system has become an establishment designed to cover each other’s address instead of doing what is best for the very taxpayers who rely on us for more production with fewer resources.

If you ask anybody in farming or ranching who they turn to with a question about technology or modern food and agriculture production, do you think they will name their county agent? I would be willing to bet that 95 percent of them would name someone else.

Recently the absolute premier scientist in the nation on the subject of animal wellbeing and stress reduction, Janeen Salak-Johnson, announced that she was leaving the University of Illinois after 18 years to move to Oklahoma State University. My family has been farming in Illinois since 1832 and, as taxpayers, we have contributed greatly to the Illinois system. What did Illinois do to try to keep Johnson there? Nothing. It’s easier to let the good ones go, especially if they may do something that would make waves rather than quietly sitting at their desk and collecting a check. It’s happening at all levels of extension.

Most have probably forgotten that the science behind animal wellbeing started at the University of Illinois with Stan Curtis. I was fortunate enough to spend time with him before we lost him. He told me the day was coming when all universities would use things like sow housing simply as a fund raising tool not a measure of science to make improvements in the industry. As he was on just about everything else, Curtis nailed this one too.

I am continually told by friends in administration that new hires are elevated. It is the perceived ability of that person to get money for the school, not their support of the Extension mission that makes them a candidate for key positions.

It is time that we, as taxpayers and managers of the natural resources, hold this “establishment” accountable for their actions. I think for the benefit of all of you in the land-grant system that are sharing this piece on your computer in between solitaire games, I will remind you of the testimony Justin Morrill gave on why it was important to establish this trail blazing system in 1862.

Our population is rapidly increasing and brings annually increased demands for bread and clothing. If we can barely meet this demand while we have fresh soils to appropriate, we shall early reach the point of our decline and fall. The nation which tills the soil so as to leave it worse than they found it, is doomed to decay and degradation.… shall we not have schools to teach men the way to feed, clothe and enlighten the great brotherhood of man?

Farmers will not be cheated longer by unsustained speculations. The test of the field must follow and verify that of the laboratory. The half-bushel and the balance must prove the arithmetic. The result must support the theory. They want substance and not a shadow—bread and not a stone. They know well there is a vast force of agricultural labor hitherto misapplied, muscles that sow where they do not reap, and they demand light—demand to have their arms unpinioned! What has been an art merely to supply physical wants must become a science.

To quote my wife, either you are a part of the solution or you are the problem. If you’re not sure where you stand on that, I’m sure there are some taxpayers around that would be happy to shed some light on it for you.

Editor’s note: Trent Loos is a sixth generation United States farmer, host of the daily radio show, Loos Tales, and founder of Faces of Agriculture, a non-profit organization putting the human element back into the production of food. Get more information at, or email Trent at [email protected].