Editor’s note: This column originally appeared in the May 2013 issue of SportsField Management

Every sports turf manager in America probably owes his/her job and career to a land-grant university, either directly or indirectly. You may not have studied at one of these great institutions, but almost every bit of agronomic knowledge you possess most likely originated at one of our great land grants, and was probably developed over time at many others. It’s hard to overstate the importance and benefits of the Morrill Act of 1862, and subsequent legislation that built on this visionary idea, to anyone involved in the green industry and to the nation as a whole.

Early in the 19th century, most Americans led a frontier life. Adapting to the different environments they encountered, survival took up most of their time. We were not a well-educated nation; education was mostly for the wealthy in the classic European traditions. That is, it didn’t really pertain to the objectives and industry of the common man. If you were attending college before The Morrill Act, you were a white male, and you were to be a doctor, lawyer or minister.

Applied science based in action had a tough go in its infancy here. Practical issues like streetlights, soil science and railroads were not appropriate subjects for discussion in a proper educational institution. At the same time, we were increasingly in need of scientific knowledge applied to the issues involved in our agricultural and industrial revolutions.

An organic movement began to emerge, calling for a more practical education for our young country, a more useful style of applied education in agriculture and industry. This movement, distilled by several states’ efforts, was led by Professor Jonathan Baldwin Turner of Illinois College. Turner crafted a plan that was adopted as a state resolution calling on the Illinois congressional delegation to promote national legislation. The idea was elegantly simple: Grant some of our vast tracts of federal land to each state for a promise to build a college or university for the common man focusing on the practical and applied sciences of agriculture and industrial engineering. In other words, education we can actually use to progress as individuals and as a nation.

Each state would receive 30,000 acres for the campus and/or for sale to fund the new schools. Illinois Senator Lyman Trumbull advised that such a bill would be best introduced by an eastern legislator in order to garner the higher population support.

Enter Representative Justin Smith Morrill of Vermont. To further entice eastern support, he changed the grant from equal amounts to each state proposed by Turner to a grant dependent more on the state’s population. Morrill introduced the bill in 1859, and after passing the house and senate it was promptly vetoed by President James Buchanan in 1861. Morrill reworked the bill slightly, adding a mission to teach the military sciences (the seeds of the ROTC program). There was a new president in office facing what would be the bloodiest year of the civil war. On July 2, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act into law, its support aided by the secession of several southern states not receiving grant benefits until after the war.

While our young nation was entrenched in perhaps its most troubled times, our representatives still had the incredible foresight to acknowledge that education for the average man (and for virtually the first time ever, the common woman) would elevate national prosperity for generations into the future. We were broke and at war (sound familiar), yet we found a way to pass a transformative piece of legislation that would quietly be the driving force to the highest standard of living in the most productive economy the world has ever known.

The war ended, and the westward expansion continued, and we have continued to build on this epic idea for the last 150 years. In 1887, the Hatch Act built the research arm of the land grants, the agricultural experiment stations. In 1890, a second Morrill Act required states to provide equal accommodations to persons of color, or at least build separate colleges for them. Many of our historically black colleges and universities were the result of this act. The Smith-Lever Act of 1914 added cooperative extension to the land grants, and the triad of teaching, research and extension was complete.

Now, our research-based knowledge could be disseminated to the public via land-grant university agents established in virtually every county in the nation. In 1994, land-grant colleges for Native Americans were established. The model has been copied for the establishment of sea-grant colleges for aquatic research (1966), urban-grant colleges researching urban issues (1985), space-grant colleges (1988), and most recently sun-grant colleges, focusing on sustainable energy development (2003).

Today, with over 100 land-grant colleges and universities, at least one in every state and territory, the sports field manager has access to unlimited technical support in their jobs no farther than their county extension agent. Millions of people have access to a world-class education, many millions more having already graduated. Nearly every treatment we perform on our fields (products to cultural practices) has been researched, refined, documented and made freely available to the sports field manager by one or more of our great land-grant universities.

“Let us have such colleges, as may rightfully claim the authority to teach, to announce facts and fixed laws which will prove useful in building up a great nation. Great in the resources of wealth and power, but greatest of all in the aggregate of its intelligence and virtue” – Justin Smith Morrill, 1862