1862 was a banner year for federal support of agricultural initiatives in the U.S., despite the government's preoccupation with the Civil War--or, according to some, because of it, since the secession of the Southern states removed many sectional objections to greater government involvement in agriculture . Several foundational pieces of legislation were passed that year that continue to shape the farm sector today, including the establishment of a federal Department of Agriculture (which has been celebrating its sesquicentennial this year in a variety of ways) and the Morrill Land-Grant College Act.
Maybe most Americans know how this worked, but it's something that has always been a bit mysterious to this Canadian girl. The idea of federally-supported agricultural colleges had been promoted--particularly by New Englanders--for several decades, and it seems as though the Morrill Act was a way to make it happen without direct cost to the taxpayers. The government granted 30,000 acres of federal land to each state, with instructions to turn it into a college by one means or another. Some states built a school on the land they were given, while others sold the real estate or its resources and used the money to fund a new or existing school. The land-grant colleges provided much of the infrastructure for public higher education in the U.S., and their legacy is part of what's being celebrated at this year's Smithsonian Folklife Festival, wrapping up today.
|"Mass Aggie" in 1867 (UMass Special Collections and University Archives)|
Occupy the Farm moved onto a five-acre tract of farmland owned by the University of California/Berkeley--the last open arable land in the area, and a parcel that the students and their allies want to see turned into a community farm (UC has used it for agricultural research for many years, but has also proposed that it be developed as student and faculty housing). For three weeks, before being driven out and arrested by riot police, the students farmed the land, planting vegetables and tending chickens they had brought with them.
Just this weekend, the occupiers returned, continuing a decades-long local effort to keep the land in cultivation. As the USDA and the land-grant colleges observe their birthdays in officially-sanctioned ways, the more radical qualities of agrarian revolt also seem to be alive and well, something that seems worth celebrating too!
 Douglas Hurt, 1994. American Agriculture: A Brief History. Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press (pp. 187-92)