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January 2022

In anticipation of our pan-Wales online event: Sustainable Agriculture for the 21st Century on the 15 and 16 February, this month’s blog takes a look at Agriculture – as the catalyst for the development of engineering disciplines in universities and, in turn, as beneficiary of the technical revolutions that this engineering has delivered. In the article I’ll take a brief look at the history of agricultural science in Welsh universities and contrast it with developments across the Atlantic in the United States, a nation in which agriculture has substantially shaped the university sector.

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There is one institution in Wales whose name is synonymous with Agriculture, that is Aberystwyth University. Established in 1872 as the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth was quick to establish agriculture in its curriculum, working in partnership with the Royal Agricultural College which had been established in Cirencester some 30 years earlier. By the 1890s a full department of agriculture was in operation and the university played a prominent role creating the Royal Welsh Agricultural Society, whose first show was held in the town in 1904. Another landmark was established in 1919 with the creation of the Welsh Plant Breeding Station. This field laboratory was an innovation that transformed farming through the provision of practical teaching and translational research on crop development. The station is still operating today, having become part of the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS) in 2008.

The early development of engineering and technical training in other parts of Wales provides something of a contrast to the agrarian focus of Aberystwyth, being shaped by the rapidly growing industrial enterprises of North and South Wales. The owners of the rapidly growing foundries and factories directly intervened to create the training required for their workforce. Thus, the Newport Mechanics Institute was created in 1841 to train local employees, the South Wales and Monmouthshire School of Mines opened in Cardiff in 1913 and was owned and funded by Welsh coal industrialists, and the creation of University of Wales College Swansea in 1920 was very much due to the efforts of the local metallurgical industry, led by Frank Gilbertson, owner of the Pontardawe Tinplate works. The picture was the same in North Wales, with the establishment of the University College of North Wales in 1884 owing much to the influence and financial contributions of the nearby slate quarries.

In the United States, the growing importance of mechanisation of labour and industrialisation of production during the latter half of the 19th century produced a similar movement for the establishment of mass higher education to that seen in Wales. In 1862 the Morrill Land Grant Act was signed by Abraham Lincoln. This provided funding for the creation of higher education establishments through granting of federal land (30,000 acres per member of congress) to the states, for them to sell so as to raise funds for universities. The industrialisation of the United States lagged that of the UK at this time, this together with the relatively unexploited nature of this vast continental territory gave a different impetus to the focus of the new universities, one in which the link between engineering and agriculture was explicit. The official title of the act was: "An Act Donating Public Lands to the Several States and Territories which may provide Colleges for the Benefit of Agriculture and the Mechanic Arts". Thus, the application of technological progress to improve the agrarian economy was paramount. This is wonderfully captured in a speech from Justin Smith Morrill, the act’s proposer, proclaiming the benefits of the new institutions – “…..where agriculture, the foundation of all present and future prosperity, may look for troops of earnest friends, studying its familiar and recondite economies, and at last elevating it to that higher level where it may fearlessly invoke comparison with the most advanced standards of the world.”. The 1862 act had a profound and immediate effect with 57 institutions being created within the following decade, including famous names such as Cornell University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). I want to dwell on two lesser-known members of this group, of which I have personal knowledge – Purdue and Texas A&M universities. These have expanded well beyond the original remit of agricultural teaching to become world-leading engineering institutes, developing technology across a wide suite of applications. In 2020 the QS world university rankings placed Purdue at 32nd and Texas A&M at 79th in the world for Engineering.

At the same time as the University of Wales was being established in Aberystwyth, Purdue University was created as a land grant institution, in West Lafayette, Indiana, with classes starting in 1874. In the intervening years it has expanded greatly to become one of the largest and most successful engineering colleges in America, with over 15,000 students. It has remained true to its founding aim to ‘advance the Agricultural and Mechanical Arts’ and was ranked 1st in US for its Agricultural and Biological Engineering programmes in 2020. Again, as agricultural education was being launched at Aberystwyth, the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas opened in College Station (1871), the first higher education institute to be created in the state. Today the college is known as Texas A&M university and has over 20,000 engineering students, a few of whom each year spend time at Swansea University. Development of agricultural training in Texas had commonalities with the Welsh experience as seen in the establishment, in 1887, of the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station. This, like the Wales Plant Breeding Station, fulfilled a need for solid agricultural research in all aspects of crop and livestock operations on which to base the practical teaching.

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The influence of engineering on the development of farming through the 20th century was huge. In the UK for instance, the annual wheat yield has tripled from ~ 2 tonnes/hectare in 1913 to over 7 tonnes/hectare in 2015. I am going to look at just one of the important technological advances – the tractor, and one tractor in particular, the Fordson. This was developed by Henry Ford, who had grown up on a farm and so appreciated the hard labour they required, his wish in developing the Fordson was to: “lift the burden of farming from flesh and blood and place it on steel and motors”. The tractor went into mass production in 1917. It’s acceptance by the farming community was immediate and within a few years it became widespread across the U.S., Canada and in Britain. By mid-1918, more than 6,000 Fordson tractors were in use, annual production reached 36,781 in 1921 and by 1925, Ford had built ½ million Fordson tractors. A century later, Elon Musk could match but not better this, taking from 2012-2018 to produce ½ million Teslas.

The reason Ford could produce an affordable vehicle was of course because of his revolutionary assembly line techniques that he had perfected on the model-T Ford. In just 30 hours raw materials could be converted into the 4,000 parts used in the tractor’s assembly and the finished product cost $750. The tractor’s engine generated 20 horsepower and could run on gasoline, or if needed, kerosene or even alcohol. Crucially the cost of running the tractor was lower than using horses, a government test calculated farmers spent $0.95 per acre, ploughing with a Fordson compared to $1.46 per acre using horses that had to be fed and for which two drivers had to be employed. Work could also be completed quicker, it took an hour and a half to till an acre of ground with five horses, with the Fordson it could be done in a 1/3 of the time. The technological impact was not just on the life and economics of the farm, the arrival of the tractor fundamentally changed the nature of the land. Before 1917 farmers had to grow large acreages of crops to sustain their horses. Around five acres of land were needed to grow the oats, hay and fodder that each horse needed for the year. In 1915 an estimated 93 million acres of cropland (27 percent of the total harvested acres) were used to grow feed for horses and mules.

The Sustainable Agriculture for the 21st Century meeting has been developed to enable discussion on a broad range of topical issues. The influence and potential of engineering in agriculture is no less today than it was 150 years ago, especially as we move to a future in which the environmental impact of human activity must be managed. In the meeting we will consider the challenges for companies in the agricultural sector; the continuing demand to increase productivity whilst also now maintaining health of the environment and diversity of our ecosystems; the circular economy in the context of agricultural production, and animal health and the wider role of the biosciences in agriculture.