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Ruminations | Putting the Corn Back in Cornell

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Ezra Cornell was a farmer.

He was a scientist, a philanthropist, a politician, and a lover of nature, but on top of all that, he was a farmer. Our founder, the Ezra Cornell, was a farmer. And today, 153 years after its founding, Cornell University is still partially inhabited by farmers.

My father has always said to me “No matter what you do, you don’t ever forget where you came from.” It’s a given that each person on this campus is uniquely diverse: each person has their very own humble beginning, their very own backstory.

Let’s appeal to an analogy in finance, for example. You probably would not make an investment without a little backstory, right? Can the same be said for your investment in your education?  What’s Cornell’s backstory, and how does that pertain to us today?

We all know Ezra’s vision of “…an institution where any person can find instruction in any study.” The founding of our institution came during a time when Ezra was chair of the NYS Senate Committee of Agriculture, and A.D. White was chair of the Committee of Literature. In February of 1865, Cornell and White introduced a bill to the State Senate “to establish Cornell University,” appropriating the sale of funds towards the University under the Morrill Act, which is responsible for the creation of land grant institutions.

Without outlining a full history lesson, I will say this: we are the OG land grant university. Who else can say that? Call me Andy Bernard, but I find that exciting.

Believe it or not, this land grant mission, and the principles behind it, are still an integral portion of our campus today. Hundreds of students that walk our campus come from agricultural backgrounds and farming families. And just like our founder, they too share a deep and ever-growing passion for agriculture, and for feeding the world.

“Cool,” I can hear you saying, “But why should I care?”. Well, quite frankly, these very classmates, your peers, will most likely have a hand in feeding you someday, if they don’t already. So, if you enjoy eating even remotely as much as I do, keep on reading.

There was one Introductory Microeconomics lecture during my Freshman fall that I remember vividly. I was seated behind a row of what was presumably full of hotelies in Statler Auditorium. A friend and I took up conversation with them, as any good and social freshmen would do. At one point, one of our fellow classmates turned around and just asked the question everyone is thinking “If you’re just going home to a farm, why are you here?”. *sigh*

We are here because we are reaping the benefits of the opportunity we have been given, a once in a lifetime shot at a world class education that hundreds of thousands of students are denied each year. Our agricultural programs are some of the highest ranking in the world. Our faculty conducts groundbreaking research, research that has implications on global food production, and positive impacts on the human race, impacts that we cannot even fathom yet.  We are here because Ezra said that we could find instruction here, too.

We are here because we want to learn business skills, expand and diversify our social circles, pass our swim test and march through Schoellkopf in a cap and gown, just like everyone else. The difference between you and us is, you might be able to code for hours on end, or speak three languages, while we can operate a tractor or deliver a baby calf. Glamourous, I know.

Even if they don’t feed you directly, they might work for a company that feeds animals, that in turn feed you. They might conduct research on the nutritional value of foods. They might work 60+ hours a week managing an agribusiness. They might save the lives of countless animals each day. They might help to finance and loan money to all of the above operations. They might track food market trends or handle international trade. And they might even turn around and teach the next generation of agriculturalists.

These kids are brilliant, but so is everyone else that studies high above Cayuga’s waters. And just like you, these kids were not accepted by mistake. They worked just as hard in high school, took the same AP and SAT tests, did the same extracurricular activities, and wrote the same Common App.

Here on campus, they too are athletes, musicians, artists, sorority sisters and fraternity brothers, activists, researchers, employees, legacies, and friends. They too are students.

Often, we hear myths and urban legends about the dark, towering Bradfield Hall or the mysterious 1960’s era Morrison Hall that sit beside Tower Road. Or, maybe we roam Mann library and observe a pack of students in jeans and work boots cranking out a chemistry problem set on a whiteboard. These buildings are full of them, the next generation of agriculturalists, waiting to take their place and effect change in this world, just like you. Passionate and eager to learn.

My point here is that the next time you see a “CALS student” or a “farm kid” and ask yourself how it is that they even got here, remember this. Without the generations of agrarians, much like our University’s very founder, we would not be here. Agriculture and innovation were the two original columns supporting our institution, and the reason it stands here today. In a more literal sense, we would not be here without it.

So, I ask that the next time you wander across the arts quad, remember that at one time, a herd of sheep grazed out there. The next time you wait in line at the salad bar in Trill, think about how fortunate we are to have fresh produce year-round, thanks to agriculture. The next time you enjoy a stress-relieving ice cream cone at the Dairy Bar, think about the science behind food technology that helped to produce it. Remembering our University’s humble beginnings is integral to the Cornell experience. And, remember that those humble beginnings have brought us to the point we are at today.

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3 comments

  • Thanks for the great read. As an AEM major who only grew up in urban areas, coming to CALS and sharing classes with a diverse set of agriculture students opened my eyes to a true appreciation for agriculture and rural communities. Tending to the land and livestock is a true science and a real hard work that require brains and brawns. Any farmer has my fullest highest respect.

  • I entered the College of Agriculture in the fall of 1956 (Class of 1960), a bare- faced farm kid from western New York. As, I’m sure, as with most of us Aggies, I’d hear things such as, “Why are you going to college to learn how to milk a cow?” This from those who had no concept of who was feeding them. Your article puts all of this in perspective. Great job! I’ve always felt a great sense of pride in being a graduate of Cornell University.

  • So well said——I was asked the same question many times back in my undergrad days from 1965 to 69—-if you are “just” going back home to farm why in the heck are you “wasting” your time at Cornell. If my non ag major friends only knew the value of a four year degree from the college of agriculture at Cornell, they would be ashamed of themselves for asking such an “uneducated” question. Stephanie McBath you nailed the answer!

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