5 Ways Land Grants can triumph in the post-COVID agriculture industry


The world is moving fast. Universities seem to move…less fast.

With universities making plans for education delivery in the upcoming academic year, it raises some interesting questions about enrollment, revenue, and sustainability of the current model. 

The question for universities is not how they will serve students this fall. It’s how they will serve their purpose in 5 years. To be frank, will they serve their purpose in 5 years?

Because of their historical importance to the agriculture industry in educating workforce and conducting research, I’m most interested in the future of land grant institutions. I hold degrees from two land grant schools (University of Arizona and Texas A&M) so I’m a product of the system signed into law by President Lincoln in 1862, and a big fan.

But I’m also an advocate that the system needs to change, to evolve alongside the industry and its consumers. Or risk slipping into the oblivion of irrelevance while drowning in bureaucracy.

We in agriculture love to talk about how important agriculture is because “people have to eat”, a self-congratulating notion that the world cannot do without us. Although it is a given that people must eat, it is not a given that people must eat food produced by the current formation of the agriculture industry. The “people have to eat” crowd typically use this to justify the status quo instead of looking at how their customers’s expectations are evolving. As a corollary, I suspect inside the halls of many universities there is some “people have to learn” mentality. <steps off soapbox>

But if you are reading this, chances are you agree that everything about the agriculture industry looks & operates & feels wildly different than it did in 1862 when land grant institutions were established, and that the rate of change is accelerating…resulting in a growing disconnect between universities and the “real world”. You already know the statistics about agtech startup funding & how digital and other technologies are moving into every aspect of the industry. You know that status quo in education is not an option for universities.

Caveat: Of course this loving critique applies in varying degrees to different universities, colleges of ag, departments within a college, etc. And of course I expect multiple Purdue grads to reference Mitch Daniels leadership & results to point to a shining antithesis to my critique, rightfully so.

Why does it matter if colleges of agriculture are maintaining status quo while the industry and consumers rapidly shift?

Let’s play this out in slightly exaggerated fashion:

  • Colleges of Ag move classes move online this fall because of COVID-19. More students realize they can access a similar quality of information in cheaper ways through online learning options. Enrollment drops, revenue drops. 
  • Meanwhile more employers start looking for hustle and skills instead of a piece of paper.  Enrollment drops, revenue drops. 
  • The education offered drifts further from what the marketplace actually needs. Enrollment drops, revenue drops.

Setting aside pressure from COVID-19, new education models like Lambda School are popping up that are designed to reduce  the student’s financial burden while accelerating measurable & marketable skills that deliver a strong ROI to students. Lambda School offers a software programming education, but what happens when that model is applied to meat science or crop science?

Pressure will pile up on traditional education paths in a hurry. But the downward spiral does not have to be! COVID-19 could be the positive catalyst that set land grant universities on a trajectory to play a starring role in shaping the future of the industry. 

Here are 5 ways to increase relevance of land grant schools to industry:

  1. Bridge industry and academia. Create alignment between the most pressing questions being asked in and of the industry and what’s being researched at universities.  Although land grants were started to promote “the liberal and practical education”, many have become increasingly disconnected from the practicalities of the industry. 
  2. Commercialization alignment. I know the c-word violates the academic purist’s sensibilities. And I concede that independent research has merit, but perhaps there is a middle ground that necessarily pulls academic research back to the practical center where more research has commercial applications and influence in the industry. Perhaps its become a little bit too independent in recent decades and lacks the practical perspective. Some land grants now have dedicated roles created to have a point person who can facilitate and bridge the gap between those who might commercialize new technologies and those doing the discovering. And yet, we all know that there is no greater bureaucracy than a university. I know of ONE startup that successfully pulled technology out of a university setting in order to commercialize. I know of a lot of people that have tried, but gave up because well, The Bureaucracy. 
  3. Incorporate tech & entrepreneurship, make it as critical as Ag Econ 101. Texas A&M University and University of Nebraska-Lincoln are doing an exceptional job of fostering entrepreneurship in agriculture through their startup centers. We need more of this. Interestingly, Wayne Farms just announced partnerships with community colleges in Alabama “to develop an apprenticeship program to prepare students for careers in an industry that is advancing technologically and increasingly competing for skilled labor”. Given the $300M investments they recently made in automation for processing plants, their work force needs are changing rapidly. Isn’t that a role we want colleges of ag to fill? To send agronomists, ag educators, meat scientists out in the world without exposure to technology & entrepreneurship is to woefully under-prepare for the future. 
  4. Build meaningful recruitment bridges. The land grants in the midwest do an exceptional job of facilitating relationships between top employers and top students. The rest could handle some improvement in this area. In a world that is largely remote, land grant schools need to think about building recruitment connectivity outside of a regional geography. This is a huge opportunity especially for schools outside of the midwest! What is the new model to connect students with global companies? What is the new model that will allow small startups to work with universities to tap talent without the time suck of interfacing with The Bureaucracy?
  5. Alumni networks that work. Many universities tout their alumni network as a compelling reason to attend, yet  few universities have an alumni network that can meaningfully move the needle, largely because the network isn’t fostered at a high level. We always say it’s a small world in the ag industry, how do we leverage that fact alongside university networks? How can alumni networks help technologists access commercial co-founders, and vice versa? 

Let me repeat, I offer this critique of the current state and ideas for the future state precisely because I believe in the power and potential of education & research to advance the industry. Land grants are one of the American ag industry’s secret super power…if channeled effectively.

Meanwhile the increasing expectation of every organization (private or public) is higher value, lower cost.  

What high value, high impact roles would you like to see colleges of agriculture play in the future?

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