Hatch Act of 1887 laid foundation for MSU AgBioResearch centers

The 14 Michigan State University AgBioResearch centers scattered throughout the state can trace their roots back to a pivotal moment in agricultural history that occurred 125 years ago.

On March 2, 1887, Congressman William Hatch – then chair of the House Committee of Agriculture – signed the Hatch Act. The legislation called for the creation of agricultural experiment stations – facilities where research to benefit the U.S. agriculture industry was to be conducted.

At the time, many farmers faced great debt along with an array of production challenges. Federal funds of $15,000 were provided to land-grant universities throughout the nation to assist with the establishment of the experiment stations.

MSU, then Michigan Agricultural College, formed its own agricultural research outpost less than a year after the Hatch Act signing. The Michigan Agricultural Experiment Station (MAES) was created on Feb. 26, 1888. Since then, it has expanded from an on-campus laboratory and a few rented or donated off-campus properties to comprise 14 research centers, from Chatham in the Upper Peninsula to Benton Harbor in the Lower Peninsula, and 18 on-campus research units.

In 2011, the MAES changed its name to MSU AgBioResearch to better reflect the breadth and depth of its work. Today, more than 300 researchers affiliated with six MSU colleges – Agriculture and Natural Resources, Communication Arts and Sciences, Engineering, Natural Science, Social Science and Veterinary Medicine – are conducting research on topics from alternative fuel sources and food safety to animal and plant disease management.

Though research has evolved to meet changing needs, AgBioResearch Director Steven Pueppke said the essence of the Hatch Act – to provide valuable information to farmers – remains intact.

“Even modern-day strides in alternative energy, clean water and food security can circle back 125 years to the Hatch Act,” Pueppke said. “It has been instrumental in placing public research universities with land-grant values in a position to make a positive difference in people’s everyday lives.”

MSU research has had numerous achievements in the field of agriculture and natural resources. A sampling includes:

  • Development of hybrid corn: botany professor William J. Beal
  • Establishment of sugar beet industry in Michigan: chemistry professor Robert Kedzie
  • Eradication of bovine tuberculosis: Michigan Agricultural College graduate Howard R. Smith
  • Homogenization of milk: food science professor G. Malcolm Trout
  • Method of turning agriculture waste and nonfood plants into materials easily processed into biofuels and chemicals: chemical engineering and food science professor Kris Berglund
  • Introduction of more than 10 new dry bean varieties since 2000: crop and soil sciences Professor James Kelly
  • Creation of an aphid-resistant soybean germplasm: crop and soil science associate professor Dechun Wang
  • Development of the world’s most popular blueberry varieties: horticulture professor James Hancock

Michigan farmers have been able to turn agriculture into the state’s second largest industry – generating more than $71 billion per year and one million jobs. The state’s agricultural production is also the second most diverse in the nation, second only to California.

“The challenges faced in maintaining this world-class diversity underscore the importance of providing the state’s growers and farmers with the research and information they need in a timely manner,” Pueppke said. “The leading-edge, Michigan-oriented research coming out of our research centers and on-campus facilities will keep us competitive and leverage the additional expertise and resources necessary to achieve this objective.”

The Hatch Act of 1887 was preceded 25 years earlier by the Morrill Act (celebrating its sesquicentennial this year), signed in 1862 by President Abraham Lincoln to authorize the states to sell public land to create land-grant universities to teach agriculture and the mechanical arts. It was followed by the Smith-Lever Act of 1914, resulting in the formation of state cooperative extension services to take the research findings from the stations to the farmers’ fields and homes.

More about MSU AgBioResearch centers can be found online or by reading the spring/winter 2009 issue of Futures, a magazine published by MSU AgBioResearch.

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