Many land-grant university campuses have a landmark building called Morrill Hall. There are Morrill Halls in New York, Tennessee, Nebraska, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Michigan, and elsewhere.
But the one in which Thomas Vogelmann has his office is special. It’s the one on the campus of the University of Vermont, the land-grant university in the home state of the person it’s named for and whose legislation created these land-grant universities. Like all Morrill Halls, it’s named for Vermont Congressman Justin Morrill, who gives his name to the Morrill Act of 1862.
Vogelmann is dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at the university where he became professor of plant biology in 2002, returning to his native state after 18 years at the University of Wyoming. He’ll be the dean when the Morrill Act celebrates its 150th anniversary in July.
“Justin Morrill would be proud,” Vogelmann says. “And we here in Vermont feel a sense of pride in what he accomplished as well. The land-grant system has had a very, very successful run.”
The land-grant system Morrill envisioned is a good reflection of the basic character of the people of Vermont, Vogelmann said. While known for their rugged independence as they farm “the rolling green hills with a lot of rocks,” the idea of working together to improve the quality of life in the overall agricultural community, and the nation as a whole, is also strong.
In recent years, Vermont has been a leader in the local foods movement, which attempts to build strong, local agricultural economies.
At the university this summer, students in the Honors College will be conducting symposia that recall the history and contributions of the land-grant universities, Vogelmann said. Deans and administrators of the various colleges at the University of Vermont will also be meeting and discussing, because, in October, the university will host academics from across the country to contemplate the future of the land-grants.
The transfer of knowledge from academia to farmer through the land-grant college system is unique in the world, Vogelmann said. And American agriculture, as a result, has been exceptional as well.
Vogelmann is confident that the Morrill Act and the land-grant university system—and its unique knowledge delivery structure, the Cooperative Extension Service—has a place in the future.
One piece of proof is that the students believe it. Student numbers in the dean’s agricultural college have grown from 850 to more than 1,200 in the last six years. “Agriculture is cool these days to the younger generation,” Vogelmann said. “Young people today are intensely interested in food and nutrition, and not in just agricultural production—but in agricultural communities in general.”
Vermont has been intent on saving its agricultural heritage, despite the hills and rocks, and it’s been a hotbed of activity in local food production and sustainability. There is a strong “buy local, buy Vermont” program that is part of the state’s Agency of Agriculture, and Web sites identify CSAs, farmers’ markets, farmstands, and sources of Vermont artisan food products.
Vogelmann notes that driving forces behind the Morrill Act were sustainability issues of that day, especially soil erosion and depletion and fertility, as well concerns about the strength of the American nation as a food producer. With world population now five times what it was in 1862, the challenge of food production in the future is greater than ever.