ROCK SPRINGS — Tiny flags stuck in neatly-frosted cupcakes at each seat of the Special Events Building celebrated the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Act, the federal legislation that led to development of the nation’s land grant universities, including Penn State.
Dozens of politicians from all government levels gathered Wednesday at Ag Progress Days, Penn State’s three-day agricultural exhibition. They celebrated the results of the Morrill Act during the annual Government and Industry Day luncheon at the Russell E. Larson Agricultural Research Center.
The group shared the cupcakes and a larger cake to mark the sesquicentennial. Several dignitaries helped cut the cake, including Ferguson Township supervisor Elliott Killian, a Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences student and descendant of Congressman Justin Morrill, of Vermont, for whom the law is named.
President Abraham Lincoln signed the law in 1862, during the Civil War, creating land grant universities that would teach the working class about agriculture, mechanic arts and the classics. In 1863, Penn State, then the Agricultural College of Pennsylvania, became the state’s only such institution.
“I believe it’s the most significant piece of legislation for public colleges and universities in this nation,” said Penn State President Rodney Erickson during the luncheon. “We continue to work on challenges in health care, energy, food security and many more.”
Erickson cited various university research initiatives in agriculture, including an online “beekeeper 101” course, assistance for farmers dealing with drought and research to protect farmers from invasive stink bugs.
He cited a recent USA Today article calling Penn State a “traditional agriculture powerhouse” and noting that enrollment in Ag Sciences is up 40 percent since 2004.
“The last nine months have been difficulty,” Erickson said. “We are moving forward thanks to the great work of our faculty, staff and students. The College of Agricultural Sciences is right there with us.”
Bruce McPheron, dean of the college, outlined more research, including that of crop roots in South Africa to help new varieties of foods survive drought, and examination of food deserts, where people can’t get healthy, affordable food.
“That’s a critical component of the land grant mission,” he said. “Research keeps it fresh.”
And research at the local level is critical, he said of the Penn State Extension offices across the state. While the college and extension saw restructuring after budget constraints, McPheron said educators will use technology and work together to continue offering services.
“Our most important asset is the local presence that we have in the state,” he said. “Our goal is to maintain that local presence.”
John Maher, majority chair of the state House Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee, said it makes “obvious good sense” to have an agricultural college and extension.
“It’s hard to open your fridge and find food not improved by research and the extension,” he said. “I see my duty is to help be a steward for the Morrill Act today.”
Jessica VanderKolk can be reached at 235-3910. Follow her on Twitter @jVanReporter