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Agriculture's promised land?

CHERYL TEVIS 02/16/2012 @ 11:16am

Selling a farm doesn't often stir public controversy beyond the local coffee shop. But what if the farm is part of your land-grant university? Recently, 10,000 people joined a grassroots campaign protesting a University of Nevada-Reno Board of Regents request to rezone a 104-acre urban campus farm for commercial development.

“I can't imagine a more important mission for a university than educating new farmers in food safety, food security, and a strong economic future,” says Wendy Bartoli, a Reno farmer who led the fight. “Somewhere that mission has been lost.” Bartoli's concern is real. Land-grant universities were established in 1862 to bring higher education in agriculture, science, and technology to a wide swath of Americans. The mission expanded in 1887 with federally funded research arms known as experiment stations.

This federal- and state-funded commitment to public agricultural research was a revolutionary model that made U.S. agriculture the envy of the world.

“Ag research has contributed to U.S. productivity and economic growth,” says Wallace Huffman, Iowa State University economist. “The future productivity of the global food and agricultural system will be determined by today's investments in research and development.”

But as land grants celebrate their sesquicentennial in 2012, they confront unprecedented challenges that threaten to undermine the foundation of this historic commitment. Supporters fear that steep budget cuts, combined with a waning social contract and national sense of purpose, may leave urgent research priorities to wither on the vine.

States have been reducing support for at least two decades. Recent cuts include:

● Penn State University cut 19% to its College of Ag Sciences in 2011 ($10.5 million in research/extension).

● University of Georgia sold two research farms to cope with a 25% cut in 2011.

● University of Nevada-Reno closed its Ag College in 2011, folding portions of it into other departments.

● University of Vermont sold its 155-head dairy herd in 2010.

These shortfalls triggered by the economic downturn top off three decades of shrinking federal support. The average annual growth rate for public ag research expenditures, adjusted for inflation, shows an eroding base:

  • 3.2% - 1960 to 1979
  • 0.9% - 1980 to 1989
  • -0.8% - 1990 to 2009

The National Institute for Food and Agriculture, which funnels much of this federal support, took a 9% cut in fiscal year 2011. For fiscal year 2012, water quality research was cut in half and food safety was zeroed out.

“New advances in science and technology build on earlier research,” says Huffman, who chaired the 2011 Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST) report, “Investing in a Better Future through Public Agricultural Research.”

“The R&D [research and development] needed to develop new technologies for farmers frequently has a long gestation. The results of a lack of investment aren't apparent for years, but eventually the well runs dry. Long periods of low basic R&D can't be quickly reversed,” he says.

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