During the 1940s, research into the technology of agriculture took off. The nation’s farmers needed better technologies because their hired hands were being drafted and the world needed more food. They needed better ways to preserve and transport food to troops and civilian allies all around the globe. And they needed better varieties of crops, livestock, insecticides, herbicides and fertilizers. Luckily, the research infrastructure was in place in the nation’s land grant colleges and universities.
The land grant system of colleges had been set up in 1862 – in the middle of the Civil War – as a democratic reaction to the elitist European system of higher education. Vermont Representative Justin Smith Morrill was the author of the act that bears his name. The Morrill Act gave federal land to states (hence the name “land grant”) if the state agreed to build a college on the land that would teach agriculture, engineering and home economics along with other liberal arts subjects. The Act also required the colleges to teach military science, a big selling point for Northern lawmakers in the middle of the Civil War.
At a time when almost all universities in Europe and America taught the children of the upper classes, Morrill wanted “to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.”
Over the years, land grant colleges took on a three-fold mission: to conduct practical research in agriculture and industry, to teach students in the latest technologies as well as the classics, and to extend the research results to adult professionals in the field.
Today, there are 105 land grant colleges and universities in each of the 50 states as well as on Indian reservations, on traditionally black colleges and in U.S. territories and protectorates.
In the 1940s, all of this development came together.
- In 1940, 584,000 students were enrolled in agricultural courses, up from 31,000 a decade earlier.
- In 1941, for the first time extension agents were working in every rural county in the U.S., including Alaska, Hawaii and Puerto Rico.
- The insecticide DDT and the herbicide 2,4-D go into wide spread use by the military. Extension agents help spread the news of the chemicals to farmers.
- Other researchers developed new machines, like the one-row, high-drum cotton picker.
- In 1946, techniques are developed to produce high-quality frozen orange juice concentrate.
- In 1946, thousands of returning veterans enrolled in land-grant colleges under the GI Bill, and student populations soared to record levels.
Throughout the decade, agricultural researchers pushed back the frontiers of scientific knowledge, taught what they learned to college students going into agriculture and extended that knowledge to the working farmer. These advances confirmed what most farmers already knew — that they had to be chemists, geneticists, entomologists, hydrologists, mechanical and electrical engineers, as well as economists and weather forecasters in order to remain successful.