Had the intent of the land grant spirit been simply to produce homemakers or farmers or carpenters, Justin Morrill, the author of the act that established the land-grants 150 years ago, might have best looked for his model among the craft guilds of the fifteenth century, wrote Enoch Bryan in 1931, 15 years after he stepped down as the first enduring president of Washington State College. In one of four essays that make up The Spirit of the Land-Grant Institutions (reissued in 1961), Bryan argued that the curriculum prescribed by the land-grant legislation was academic rather than vocational. “It was far broader, far more fundamental,” he wrote.

In other words, the Morrill Act, or “charter,” as Bryan referred to it, represented a revolutionary shift in education, from the “verbalistic” to the scientific, shifting American education from an elite and narrow institution that produced mostly clergymen and lawyers, to a rich process accessible by the common man and woman.

As radical and fresh as the idea might be, Bryan argued that the origins of the land-grant spirit lay with Thomas Jefferson’s 1818 charter establishing the University of Virginia. Both, wrote Bryan, represent a shift to the natural and physical sciences, “to historical, political and economic science, to the study of agriculture, commerce and industry, as based on these sciences with a very distinct declaration of purpose, through these instruments, of contributing to the subsistence, comfort, health and happiness of all the people…”

Bryan was emphatic that this new educational spirit did not exclude the classics. Nor the arts. It was Bryan, after all, who established a music curriculum at Washington State College. Farmers need music, too, he believed.

So passionate was Bryan about the land-grant spirit that created his Washington State Agricultural College that he wrote about it throughout his life. More immediately, while still president, he envisioned an agricultural utopian community in which his students might live out the ideals and practices they learned while under his tutelage, sinking his savings into 300 acres of land on a bench above the Snake River, just above the site of the Little Goose Dam.

This year’s observances of the 150th anniversary of the first Morrill Act vary amongst the more than 70 original land-grant colleges, most of which are now universities. WSU joined 27 others in presenting its vision of the modern land grant through a display, “Feed the World. Power the Planet,” at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival this summer. The anniversary also presents an occasion to ponder whether the spirit of the land-grant still holds true.

It certainly does for John Reganold, Lynne Carpenter-Boggs, Brad Jaeckel, and others involved in WSU’s organic major and farm. And, evidently, to Chuck and Louanna Eggert, who recently gave $5 million to WSU to establish a much larger and more ambitious organic farm on campus. The Eggerts, who met at WSU, founded Pacific Natural Foods.

According to Reganold, the organic major and the first organic farm, located next to Tukey Orchard, were established for a dual purpose: to train students who wanted to learn about sustainable agriculture and, perhaps more important, to bring more people back into agriculture.

“When I took this to the faculty in 2002,” says Reganold, “we were losing people in agriculture, across the U.S. That’s turning around.”

By 2002, the segment of the American labor force working in agriculture had dropped below 2 percent, down from 16 percent in 1945 and 41 percent in 1900.

Similar to Bryan’s vision, the purpose of the organic agriculture major and the new farm are not simply to produce organic farmers, but to investigate the science behind the discipline, explaining, enhancing, and developing techniques that are increasingly being adopted by other agricultural approaches.

Sadly, Bryan’s dream of a utopian community, after thriving briefly, succumbed to a common Western affliction, the lack of sufficient irrigation. The Eggert Family Organic Farm and the associated potential advances in agricultural knowledge and understanding may well be seen as an affirmation of his dreams.

Tim Steury, Editor