Separate and unequal: How Lincoln's land-grant funding woes hurt Missouri's small farmers

They're considered small in every community but their own. There, they tower like kings.

David Ybarra's kingdom is an 18-acre plot of land near Potosi. He's christened the farm Forshana, the phonetic spelling of the name of the creek that feeds his crops — mums and pumpkins in the fall, hanging baskets of petunias in the spring and vegetable plants all year long.

Forshana Farm is one of Missouri's approximately 101,600 small farms, according to a 2015 annual report from Lincoln University and MU.

Ybarra's reign over Forshana Farm began in 2010 as he was transitioning from urban farming and his day job — a nursery specialist at Lowe's. Two years later, he developed a friendship with a small farm specialist, Joyce Rainwater, from Lincoln University Cooperative Extension, who helps farmers with limited resources get off the ground.

From season to season, Ybarra, like the extension program that serves him, worries about money.

"There's not a whole lot of margin," Ybarra said. When he needs advice, he turns to Lincoln, whose own funding woes are but a microcosm of the national conversation on equity, and the long-held systems that can undermine it.

Challenges to Lincoln's land-grant mission

As a historically black college, Lincoln has had its share of challenges: increasing competition from mainstream schools, low enrollment, alumni who won't give back and budget cuts from state and federal governments. But for Lincoln, which is also a land-grant university, it's more complicated than that.

Since 2000, Lincoln hasn't received even half of the required appropriations from the state to be able to fully fund its land-grant mission, which supports the school's agricultural research and extension programs. As of fiscal year 2018, Lincoln is only receiving $3.19 million from the state — about a $3.87 million deficit of the required $7.06 million as determined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, according to Sandy Koetting, Lincoln's chief financial officer.

The land-grant mission of MU, Missouri's other and first land-grant institution, is funded through a different process — and has received its required allotment in the same time period.

"We've created a dual system within the land-grant community, and it doesn't work," said John Michael Lee, Jr., former vice president of the Office for Access and Success at the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities.

Small farmers such as Ybarra offer a glimpse into this land-grant university system whose funding affects not only students and faculty of a designated university but the communities surrounding it.

"Lincoln's mission is to serve the underserved, and that's our program's mission: to serve the underserved farmers and ranchers in the area," said Rainwater, now the Horticulture Program coordinator in Lincoln's extension program.

For Rainwater, that population includes female sole proprietors, Hispanic, Caucasian, African-American and low-income farmers. Many of these small farmers sell their wares at local farmers markets, coming to display their grass-fed beef, free-range eggs, pecans, microgreens and goat milk fudge as some local farmers do for Lincoln's extension-sponsored farmers market. 

In June, Rainwater, along with five other members of the 12-member Innovative Small Farmers' Outreach Program, lost her job due to funding problems.

The outreach program's "target audience is limited-resource, underserved and minority farmers and ranchers making $50,000 or less annually," according to a 2016 annual report. For Ybarra, the program and its funding struggles were personal.

"Even though they were losing people, it seemed like I could get responses from them," Ybarra said. "They'd come out to the farm and even stop by just to see how things were going. (Joyce would) swing in and make sure things were going good."

Rainwater and her teammates were not alone. Personnel cuts within the extension and research programs have left many offices within the on-campus extension building empty and dark.

In one office that remains bright, sits Jaime Pinero, interim director of the Innovative Small Farmers' Outreach Program. To demonstrate the effects of underfunding, he clicked open the PDF of a 2016 flyer for a farmers workshop at the Alan T. Busby Farm, Lincoln's 280-acre organic research farm that he said few people know about. Pointing at the screen, he flicked through a list of specialties the extension program offered before the 2017 personnel cuts.

"Multispecies grazing — gone. Finca garden with native plants — gone. Composting ... gone," Pinero said.

Lincoln's research and extension programs offer workshops like this one, on-farm demonstrations and one-on-one consultations to small farmers across Missouri.

Pinero wrote in an email: "Many farmers in MO rely on (Lincoln) to get research-based information that can help them improve their farming operation." He added that many of those farmers are disappointed and frustrated by Lincoln's yearly financial instability.

The formation of two kinds of land-grants

Lincoln shares its budgeting uncertainties with several other historically black land-grant universities across the country. In fiscal year 2016, for example, 10 of the 19 schools with both designations did not receive all of the required land-grant funding from their respective states, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's website.

"To me, it's an issue of basic fairness," Lee said. "We sometimes look at institutions and we're comparing the outcomes, but we don't often look at inputs."

Those inputs  that Abraham Lincoln — Lincoln University's namesake — protected when he signed the 1862 Morrill Act, were allotting land in each state toward a school that would, amid the other disciplines, devote itself to agriculture and the mechanical arts. Across the country, the designation went to schools such as Purdue, Virginia Tech and Texas A&M. In Missouri the designation went to MU.

It wasn't until 1890 that the second Morrill Act threatened to withhold funds from land-grant universities that used race in their admissions. Those schools were given the options of proving that race wasn't an admissions criterion or having the state designate a second land-grant university dedicated to educating students of color. Primarily Southern and border states would choose to offer a separate land-grant university. In Missouri, the designation went to Lincoln.

During the next 90 years, Congress would pass legislation that provided funds for the 1862 land-grant universities and, much later, separate legislation that governed the 1890 land-grant universities — all beneath the banner of the same land-grant mission.

"Even though we're all land-grants, we're not all playing under the same rules because the funding mechanisms are different for each of those," Lee said.

In 2013, Lee co-wrote a policy brief titled "Land-grant But Unequal" because he often heard the presidents of 1890 land-grant universities like Lincoln lamenting the issue.

"States are failing to provide the nation's 1890 historically black land-grant universities the same level of one-to-one matching dollars they provide other land-grant institutions that receive federal funding," according to the brief.

Lincoln's land-grant match as a line item

One of the pillars of the land-grant funding system is the one-to-one state match. After the USDA allocates a specific dollar amount for each land-grant university every year, the state is required to provide the same amount to the university. If the state doesn't match those funds, the institution may have to forfeit the federal appropriations.

There's a loophole, however, for states with 1890 land-grant universities, Lee said. If the state does not fully match the funds provided to the school by the USDA, the school can apply each year for a fee waiver of up to 50 percent of the federal funds. The waiver requires the school to prove that some sort of natural disaster has occurred, the state or school is facing a financial crisis or  demonstrate a "good faith effort" to find funding, according to the USDA's website.

"Even though we're all land-grants, we're not all playing under the same rules."

Lincoln applies for a waiver under the latter two criteria. 

"Primarily when we submit ... we always show proof or documentation that we have requested and have actively been pursuing an increase in the match allocation from the state," Koetting said. "If there are any indications that the state has cut appropriations or made across-the-board cuts, those types of articles and documents are also submitted."

Receiving the waiver is not guaranteed. Lincoln has applied for and received a waiver every year since 2000, according to Misty Young, Lincoln's director of the Office of University Relations. The USDA has not yet approved Lincoln's fiscal year 2018 waiver request.

The National Education Association published a similar analysis in October, using Lincoln as a case study through which readers can "see the impact of inequitable funding practices on the nation's HBCUs."

The NEA notes that, since 2000, Lincoln has been shifting funds in its operating budget and tuition revenues toward its land-grant mission, attempting to cover part of the state match in order to not lose its federal funding. From 2000 to 2017, Lincoln only received $10.6 million in state appropriations — or 11 percent of its required match.

"The university has made up $42.9 million of the gap by moving money in its own budget, but the waiver formula has led to a loss of $11.3 million in federal funds in this time period," according to the NEA.

The brief goes on to say that for the 1890 land-grant universities the lost money makes a big difference; about 60 percent of their overall funding comes from state and federal grants and appropriations such as the land-grant funds. This number for Lincoln is more like 70 percent, Young wrote in an email. For 1862 land-grant universities, those revenue streams make up about one-third.

Among policymakers at the state level, the issue rests on a fine line. In this case, a line item.

Rep. Lyle Rowland, R-Cedarcreek and chairman of the Subcommittee on Appropriations-Education, attributes the funding disparities to two things: a bleeding state budget in which cuts must be made across the board, and Lincoln's land-grant match separated as a line item rather than rolled into its core funding.

Line items in a budget that's hurting across the board can be low-hanging fruit for the governor to withhold or veto, Rowland said.

Although the state match was first required in 2000, the state allocated approximately $900,000 for Lincoln for the land-grant match in fiscal year 2008, Young wrote in an email. In the following year, the state rolled that allocation into Lincoln's core appropriations, much like it does for MU.Since then Lincoln has continued to designate that allotment, which fluctuates with its  core funding, toward the land-grant match.

In fiscal year 2015, the state designated a separate line item for Lincoln's land-grant match, in addition to the allotment within the university's  core.

The line-item designation was a response to pressure from Lincoln's supporters, said Rep. Scott Fitzpatrick, chairman of the House Budget Committee.

"We didn't like the accusations that we've treated Lincoln any different than we've treated Mizzou," Fitzpatrick said. "The idea that we have fully funded Mizzou's land-grant and not Lincoln's is kind of a misnomer."

It's a misnomer because the state doesn't specifically provide MU's land-grant money as a separate line item — it's rolled into MU's core, so the university decides how much of its state appropriations to designate as the land-grant match.

"It appears that the University of Missouri has passed through sufficient funding to MU Extension to retain federal funds every year (since 2000)," Dennis Gagnon, director of communications for MU Extension, wrote in an email. "MU pulls from its allocated funding to provide MU Extension’s funding."

A systemic problem

Fitzpatrick measures equity by a different yardstick. 

When viewing the state's appropriations to Lincoln through the lens of funding per student , he said he doesn't know why Lincoln's land-grant match isn't fully funded.

In fall 2016, Lincoln's per student funding was the highest of any college in the state, according to the 2017 Budget Fast Facts prepared by the House appropriations staff.

"For our purposes, we've been more than fair to Lincoln," Fitzpatrick said. "We've actually treated them preferentially with regard to land-grant (funding)."

Per student funding is a metric more commonly discussed at the K-12 level, Rowland said. When colleges talk about their per-student funding, they're dividing their core appropriations by the number of their full-time enrolled students. So on paper, when a college such as  Lincoln has fewer students, it can appear that its per student funding is higher, Rowland said.

"It's hard to succeed when you're not given all the tools that you need to take the appropriate steps."

The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities  policy brief recommends the state match be a separate line item on the state budget.

For Rowland, absorbing the state's matching funds into Lincoln's core budget not only provides the university with "local control," but it  creates space for equal treatment toward all of Missouri's colleges . That way when a set percentage of core funding is cut all schools feel it equally.

However, Jason Groce, chief of staff for Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, said colleges such as  Lincoln, with smaller operating budgets, feel a core cut more than bigger schools do.

In the past, regardless of whether or not Lincoln's state match funding has been a budgetary line item, the school has not received its required match.

"It's hard to succeed when you're not given all the tools that you need to take the appropriate steps," Groce said.

Left with uncertainty 

Even with some of those tools, Lincoln's extension program still struggles. For fiscal year 2018, the line item and allotment within Lincoln's core total $3,191,610, according to Young. The amount is still short of its nearly  $7 million federal land-grant allotment but significantly higher than the $1,731,592 Lincoln received from the state in fiscal year 2017.

"A number of things kind of dominoed to create drops in funding."

Pinero said that due to the employee cuts from 2017 there may not be enough research and extension personnel left to adequately manage the extra appropriations from the state. He fears that if Lincoln can't use all of it well the state won't appropriate that amount in future years.

MU also cut around 30 positions in its extension program in mid-2017, Gagnon said.

"A number of things kind of dominoed to create drops in funding," Gagnon said. Those include allotments at the state and federal level that weren't keeping up with the consumer price index, declining enrollment rates and a reduction in federal grant money. "Pretty soon you have to start trimming."

MU Extension serves every county in Missouri and offers research-based instruction and programs in disciplines beyond agriculture such as: business, medicine, law enforcement and firefighting.

Over the years, Ybarra has benefited from both Lincoln's and MU's extension programs, which partner on several projects. Between 2012 and 2016, he served on the council for MU's Extension program.

For Ybarra, Lincoln's extension has felt much more personal. Even while he was on the council, he primarily turned to Lincoln for help when he needed it. Whereas, "half the time where I was calling (MU Extension), I’d get an answering machine," Ybarra said.

For now, Lincoln's land-grant mission will continue albeit with financial limitations. Ybarra knows these well.

At Forshana Farm, Ybarra's just starting to grow flowers for baskets.

"My approach (to farming) has just been growing, slowly and surely," Ybarra said.

In the coming months, Lincoln will adopt the same posture.

"In recent years as we have increased our presence within the state Capitol, we have seen slight increases in the amount of dollars allocated in support of the land-grant funding match," Young wrote in an email. "We are hopeful this year will be no exception and that our efforts will one day lead to a full state match."

The state budget for fiscal year 2019, including Lincoln's land-grant match, is yet to be finalized.

Until then, university leaders and extension employees will watch, wait and see what grow