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Just so science-y

“I love this place,” I said. “It’s just so…science-y.”

I was with Granddaughter One, killing time on a weekend and trying to be responsible about the whole physical distancing thing, so we were walking around the gardens and grounds of the West Central Research and Outreach Center.

It’s always such a pleasant place to visit that you can forget that it represents one of the greatest things about the United States of America.

The name changes pretty often, so I sometimes forget what to call it. I grew up saying “the Experiment Station.” Located in Morris, it’s part of the University of Minnesota. In 1890, it was a high school for Native Americans. Twenty years later it became the West Central School of Agriculture, where students would live for six months, going home intermittently to help with planting, haying, and harvest. Sixty years ago, it was split into the University of Minnesota, Morris and the West Central Experiment Station. When I was farming, I spent a lot of time asking the scientists who worked there questions that they always seemed eager to answer.

Because that was their job – or at least part of their job. They were paid to give honest, balanced answers to inquiries, to be honest brokers of information about what worked and what didn’t. At the same time, they were also conducting research on projects that could change the world.

Think about that. Over the years, I’ve gotten to know quite a few scientists and professors who’ve come up through the land grant university system, and “flamboyant” wouldn’t be the first descriptive term that came to mind.

Actually, flamboyant doesn’t even make the list. But every day, in buildings and fields scattered all around the world, research goes on that will change the world - or even save it.

Think I’m exaggerating? Let’s talk about Norman Borlaug. He grew up poor during the Depression, joined the Civilian Conservation Corps, and there met other young men who were literally starving until they got to camp and made their way through the chow line. He earned his Ph.D. in 1942 and spent WWII developing waterproof glue to help supply Marines on Guadalcanal, canteen disinfectants, and insulation for electronic equipment. Nothing flashy, but my guess is if you were a Marine watching a box of supplies float ashore, you were grateful that it didn’t fall apart in the surf, even if you never knew who was responsible.

To make a long, fascinating story a little shorter, after the war he went on to help develop different breeds of small grains and different farming techniques that saved a billion people from starving to death.

Now, there are serious issues to debate about monoculture, artificial fertilizer, industrial agriculture… all of it. You can’t have science without unintended consequences. On the other hand…a billion people.

That’s why Norman deserved the Nobel Peace Prize. I don’t think you can argue about that.

Agricultural research has moved on. I noticed in Morris there were cattle grazing underneath solar panels. Pretty nice to have a pasture where the cattle graze in the shade while the electric company writes a check to you. They’re also researching dried algae in hog feed and living mulch for strawberry plants.

Some of these projects will end up as failures, which is actually the coolest part. We fund these programs together, as a country, so the knowledge, risks and rewards are spread equally. Would you rather discover something doesn’t work after a small-scale investment in a research facility or on your own farm after you’ve put your life savings into trying it out? Sometimes science tells you things you don’t want to hear. That doesn’t mean you stop trusting science, it means you take that knowledge and try something else.

Just something I was thinking about on a sunny day, walking the grounds of a facility where smart people do work that matters, work that not enough people notice.

Copyright 2020 Brent Olson

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