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Schooling the Land Grant Universities


Aunt Dororthy in front of her house in Salem, Ohio

When I was younger, my siblings and I would each get to spend solo weekends with my Aunt Dorothy. We cherished the one-on-one time. It was an experience of our very own away from the chaos of home. Those are special times in a kid’s life. We’d do cool crafts, play dress-up, get a bubble bath and eat popcorn in bed. It was the best! We are both now much older but I recently spent a couple days with my aunt. While I can’t relive the past, I can appreciate the experience just the same.

As a kid, I would stir the blueberry, pie mixture in hopes of sneaking a taste, now I’m writing down her secret recipe. Wandering through her elaborate gardens, I write down the name of flowers versus pretending to be a princess in a flowering courtyard. In place of her fantastical, bedtime stories, I question her about days gone by, life as a young girl on the farm and her days as a career woman.

We spent a glorious, deciduous-tree, fall day planting daffodils and tulips around her 4-acre property tucking them like hidden gnomes at the base of trees and woody nooks. Her simple but dynamic life has always fascinated me. Like the many books that adorn her library, she’s a good read.


Heritage Lane Farm – Salem, Ohio

Earlier in the day, I had left a message for a local rancher in the area raising organic buffalo, Jeff and Sarah Swope of Heritage Lane Farms. Jeff called to say he had time to meet and invited me and my aunt over for a visit. Jeff and Sarah raise 40-50 buffalo rotating them between paddocks on 50 acres of grassland. I had read about Jeff in a newspaper article. His knowledge about soil biology peaked my interest. Located just down the road from the non-organic dairy I had visited the weekend before, I was curious to understand what his conventional neighbors thought about his approach to farm management. “Pure and simple, most don’t understand what’s happening in their soil.” said Jeff. “They don’t understand the science so they don’t bother to learn more about it,” he continued. Conventional farmers rely on their soil tester who comes out regularly to take samples and prescribe chemical nutrients. The understanding stops there. “My neighbors think what I’m doing is a nice but not really farming as a business,” Jeff remarked.

I asked Jeff, “What will it take to change the mindset?” Without hesitation, he replied, “Change the approach at land grant universities.” Awe-struck, I shook my ahead in agreement as my brain started firing. While not a silver bullet to fixing the agricultural economy, it has huge merit. The research and methodology that comes out of universities, drives the school of thought in most fields. It is not to say that land grant universities do not study sustainable farming practices. They do. However, it is offered as an extension to the school’s primary teaching model. In a paper by the North Dakota Sustainable Agriculture Society, “Colleges of agriculture need to become less institutionalized and more revitalized – that is, less focused on purchased chemical inputs and mammoth-scale production which marginalize other areas of inquiry, including smaller scale and more environmentally appropriate farming techniques such as organic practices.”


Jeff Swope with his buffalo herd

University of Minnesota student, Claire Stanford, quoted the prolific agrarian, Wendell Berry as saying, “Land-grant schools have departed too far from their mandate, emphasizing research to the detriment of teaching and land stewardship. What’s more, when big agribusiness companies like Monsanto and Cargill are supplying grant money and donations to those same land-grant schools, there is the question of how objective that research can be.”

Changing the mindset of land grant universities might be as difficult as untying the Half-Nelson that agribusiness has on our legislative system but it is good to know we have yet another area to apply pressure. In the meantime, Jeff has sent his kids to smaller colleges which focus on small-scale farming and sustainable agriculture.