A Faculty at the heart of history

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ounded in the 10th century by Saint Guibert, the Benedictine abbey of Gembloux houses a monastic school as well as an abbey church. The location was chosen not only because of its strategic position along the Roman road and its proximity to a watercourse, but also for the fertility of the land.

Following wars and fires, the original abbey underwent numerous modifications until it was completely rebuilt between 1762 and 1785. The monastery was completely rebuilt by the architect Laurent-Benoît Dewez, who designed the new cloistered buildings in neoclassical style. Just a few years later, in the wake of the French revolution, the monks were expelled, and the abbey was put up for sale.

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This exceptional real estate heritage, surrounded by dozens of hectares of the country's best lands, was the ideal place to found the Agricultural Institute in July 1860. It is actually a transfer of the agricultural school in Thourout, West Flanders, created eleven years earlier and which closed in 1859 for non-renewal of the lease. The buildings of the former abbey and its lands were first rented before being purchased by the Belgian State in 1881.

The Agricultural Institute, directed by Phocas Lejeune, winner of the famous Grignon School of Agriculture, officially opened its courses on January 8, 1861.

Precious lands

The site of Gembloux, at the gateway to the Hesbaye, is ideal. The silty soils are among the most fertile in the country. The newly built Namur-Brussels railway line passes through the immediate vicinity. The new establishment also includes the State stud farm, which must help with practical animal husbandry work. Above all, the site - a former Benedictine abbey, today empty but flanked by an active farm - will easily accommodate students. The icing on the cake: the owner of the time promised to build a second farm, enough to provide practical training for future registrants.

The naked ploughman and... reader

From the very beginning of the Institute, the combination of theory and practice has been the high point of the training. This is still reflected today in the monument "Lejeune-Fouquet" (named after the first two directors), representing a farmer sitting at rest on his plough, focused on reading a book. Installed in the main courtyard in 1910, the "naked ploughman" now sits in the 'Cour des Noyers', a stone's throw from the offices where inscriptions are made.

Initially, the training course at the Institute lasted three years. It increased to four years at the end of the 19th century, allowing "agricultural engineers" to specialise in one of the three options available at the time: agronomic sciences, agricultural chemical sciences and forestry sciences. It would take more than a century for a fourth path to emerge: "environmental sciences and technologies".

At the end of the 19th century, due to a lack of training and scientific information at their disposal, some farmers still resorted to prayer to protect their fields from harm. Gradually, teachers in Gembloux are making a difference, for example by setting up a consultation service, publishing their observations, sending their students to farms to do work and internships in the form of a "farm service" or "cultivation plans". Experiments conducted at the experimental farm provide advice and material for the subjects taught.

An early global dimension

From its early years, the Agricultural Institute has had a significant international influence. The proportion of foreign students has risen to one-third of those enrolled. Scientific missions abroad are no stranger to this. Indeed, the botanist Émile Laurent carried out several scientific missions until 1904 in what is today called the "Independent State of Congo". While providing advice to Belgian farmers, Gembloux researchers and teachers are interested in tropical regions. In Peru, they opened an agricultural and veterinary school that became the National Agrarian University of La Molina. For several generations, Gembloux graduates held most of the administrative and technical positions in the Belgian colonies (Congo, Rwanda-Urundi). This presence would continue during the years of decolonisation. This time, it will provide funding for the enrolment of many students from the Maghreb, Central and West Africa.

In 1920, the Agricultural Institute changed its name to the "Institut agronomique de l'État". This was the time when stations were developing: dairy, phytopathology, applied zoology, rural engineering, plant breeding, etc. Their goal: to respond to the concrete problems encountered by breeders and farmers, thus playing the role of serving the community from that time on. The stations merged in the 1950s to form the Centre de recherches agronomiques (CRA), the predecessor of the current CRA-W. At the same time, Émile Marchal (see his biography on www.reflexions.be), the spiritual son of Émile Laurent, struggled to legally award student researchers the title of "Doctor of Agronomy" (the Institute depended, at the time, only on the Ministry of Agriculture). In 1965, the Institute became the "State Faculty of Agricultural Sciences" and then, in 1994, the "University Faculty of Agricultural Sciences of Gembloux".

Isolated or integrated?

In addition to cutting-edge research and teaching, the popularisation of scientific knowledge has become one of the Institute's missions over the years. At the initiative of Professor René Laloux, the first "Cereals White Paper" was published in 1967. It was intended to disseminate the results of the research directly among cereal farmers. Recently, in Gembloux, half a century of six-monthly sharing of experimental results between researchers and practitioners was celebrated: an anniversary organised jointly by Gembloux Agro-Bio Tech and CRA-W, casting aside the occasional rivalry that marked the existence of the two institutions.

From the seventies onwards, an existential question arose. Should the Faculty remain autonomous or be integrated into a university? A possible integration with the University of Liege has already been mentioned. The imminence of the installation just a stone's throw from a university equipped with a Faculty of Agronomy - the UCL in Louvain-la-Neuve – could not avoid causing some pragmatic concerns. These concerned the considerable burden of maintaining buildings. While they were undoubtedly prestigious, they were nonetheless old and even outdated. In 1986, the "Fac Agro" had some 390 students. To bring together first-application students in one place, it was obliged to rent the municipal hostel to the City, as the Plant Biology auditorium was no longer sufficient. The acquisition of a barn, magnificently restored to a 600-seat auditorium (Espace Senghor), solved the problem in 1989. The developments and investments will continue with, among others, the current implementation of the TERRA project.

40% female students

In 2009, the University Faculty joined the University of Liège. Everyone was talking about their own terms: "integration", "fusion", "absorption"... It was undoubtedly about the survival of "Gembloux", in a context of growing competition – both European and international - between universities. ULg gained its status as "the only complete public university in the French-speaking region", as the rector at the time, Bernard Rentier, pointed out. At the same time, agricultural engineers changed titles, becoming bioscience engineers. There are currently 1,300 students - from 46 different nationalities, including Chinese - 40% of whom are women. Gembloux Agro-Bio Tech continues today on its momentum, driven by the urgent need to open up more to a world that is changing rapidly and profoundly: the promotion of internships abroad, consolidating its presence (professional or voluntary) in the countries of the South, contributions to the fight against global crises (climate, food, energy...), sharing of experiences with non-university actors (arts and gastronomy, in particular), etc.

Excerpts from the article written by Philippe Lamotte, journalist, in collaboration with Jacques Mignon, scientific attaché at the Gembloux Agro-Bio Tech library.