WASHINGTON — Leaders from 1890 land-grant colleges laid out to the House Agriculture Committee Wednesday how a fresh infusion of scholarship funding provided by Congress has helped those historically Black institutions educate and train the next generation of agriculture workers.
Committee chairman David Scott, D-Ga., said their testimony would help members of the committee work to make the $80 million scholarship program permanent, rather than reauthorizing it through the farm bill every five years.
“We are moving to make this scholarship program permanent and in order to do that we want to make sure we have the evidence to present that,” said Scott, a graduate of one of the 1890 institutions, Florida A&M University. “I want to be able to get on the record, all of what this scholarship program means to each of you.”
Scott, along with several other lawmakers, worked to provide the scholarship funding in the 2018 farm bill. The funds were divided among the 19 land-grant Historically Black Colleges and Universities, which span 18 states and were designated land-grant colleges under the Morrill Act of 1890.
Among the universities included would be Lincoln University in Jefferson City.
“This is a much-needed investment in the future of our food production,” Scott said in his opening statement. “Furthermore, investing in the 1890 Centers of Excellence is essential as they mold talented young minds for our food and agricultural sector, to ensure the success and prosperity of our smaller farmers and ranchers, and fighting hunger across the globe.”
Makola Abdullah, the president of Virginia State University, said that funding from the scholarships has allowed many first-generation students to earn a degree in the agriculture field without having to take on student loans.
“This program has allowed us to recruit and train the next generation of agricultural leaders who will continue to keep our food supply chain safe,” he said.
Paul Jones, the president of Fort Valley State University in Fort Valley, Georgia, said his school has been able to award 76 full scholarships to students, and has avoided having to increase tuition this year.
The top Republican on the committee, Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., raised concerns about broadband availability at these institutions and the rural communities they serve.
He also asked witnesses what other improvements Congress could make for the land-grant schools as members work on the upcoming farm bill.
“Today, especially as we look toward a post-pandemic economy, any conversation about education must also include the issue of connectivity,” he said in his opening statement. “This is an issue I am working on extensively to move the needle and close this gap, especially for our rural communities.”
Committee vice chairwoman Alma Adams (D-N.C.) added that 1890 institutions have provided essential research and training in the agriculture field and “yet these institutions still face major issues,” such as needing major building repair and renovations.
“It’s a priority of mine to make sure that these institutions continue to have resources to unlock the potential of millions of students across the country,” she said.
The witnesses all stressed the need for urgent funding to replace or renovate outdated research facilities.
Heidi M. Anderson, the president of the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, said that the average age of the buildings at her university is 44 years. One key building was constructed in 1954 and has outdated electrical systems and a poor HVAC system.
“Just doing something simple as changing the windows becomes very problematic because of the historic nature of the building,” she said.
Anderson added that the university has had to delay more than $90 million in maintenance.
“We have an opportunity to look at adding better neurosciences, but we cannot do it in the current infrastructure that we have,” she said.
Rep. Julia Letlow, R-La., said a concern that she’s seeing in her district is ”the aging population we’re experiencing in agriculture today.” She asked Orlando F. McMeans, the chancellor-dean at the Southern University Agricultural Research & Extension Center in Baton Rouge, how the university helps support small scale farms.
“We have one of the more successful land-grant outreach programs,” he said. “It offers certification in small business development, food safety, and dealing with sustainable urban agriculture.”
He added that the university has trained more than 400 clients during the pandemic through virtual programs.
“So we’re working together and we understand and value the importance of the small farm,” he said. “When you look at where the potential for us to grow in the state of Louisiana is, it’s those small farms.”
Scott also held a press conference shortly after the hearing, and said he plans to introduce a bill sometime this week to make the scholarship funds permanent.
“We must increase this funding,” he said. “The seed that we have planted is blossoming into a tremendous forest, and we’ve got to continue to add the funding resources to support these universities.”