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Research-based production practices form the backbone of successful farms

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Government-funded Extension and research have taken some major hits in recent months, leaving grower-funded research as the only sure thing moving forward.

Spanning the Peanut Belt, from Texas, Georgia and North Carolina, the winners of the Farm Press 2011 Peanut Profitability Awards all are quick to admit they could not have reached this achievement on their own.

There are many factors involved in achieving a farming success, not the least of which are the basic, everyday production practices that are based on painstaking research.

I mention this now lest we forget, or take for granted, those practices that don’t make the same headlines as advances like genetically engineered crops, but they’re every bit if not more important. And I mention it also because in the clamor for budget cuts — indiscriminate budget cuts — production agriculture research is taking a beating, and the effects of actions being taken this year might be irreversible.

This isn’t exactly a new phenomenon. It has been occurring at the state level for some time now, greatly impacting the mission of the Cooperative Extension Service. In the past five to seven years, numerous Extension positions have been lost and not replaced at land grant universities in the Southeast.

In Georgia, for example, one of the primary pest problems on peanuts this past year was the burrower bug, but there was no full-time entomologist on staff to help with the problem. There’s also no plant physiologist working in peanuts, at a time when many new varieties are being planted for the first time.

In the latest round of budget reductions in Georgia — all supposedly due to an ongoing state budget crisis — the University of Georgia Agricultural and Environmental Sciences terminated18 employees and posted a “For Sale” sign on a 522-acre research farm.

Most of the positions cut were technical positions on farms and about one-third were administrative, secretarial support positions. The college is closing its peach research facility at Byron, Ga., and pecan pest management, horticulture research and plant pathology programs in Tifton. While the college had worked during the past three budget cycles to avoid laying off employees, the latest round of cuts required layoffs.

“The second half of the story is that we’ve lost about 340 of our faculty and staff over the last couple of years through natural attrition and incentives to retire,” says Dean Scott Angle. “Overall, we’re looking at 355 individuals that were around a couple of years ago who are not around today.”

The college is accepting sealed bids on its 522-acre Plant Sciences Farm in Watkinsville, where variety testing and development research has been conducted on cotton and grain production, specifically for north Georgia.

Frankly, says Angle, the college has had to give up a few things. “We’re going to have to look at the next couple of years to try to enhance our budget not to where we used to be, but try to get some of it back to continue to try to do some things that are pretty important to the state.”

Like other leaders in his position, Angle knows that some of what has been taken away will never be given back. It’s difficult to imagine a time in the future when state governments are so flush with cash that they start purchasing land to be used for agricultural experimentation. Once they’re gone, they’re gone for good.

Adding to the woe is the fact that as a result of Congress eliminating earmarked funds associated with water-use reduction, the budget at the National Peanut Laboratory in Dawson, Ga., has been cut by approximately 20 percent, requiring the elimination of four scientific positions, including two agronomists, one peanut geneticist and one plant physiologist, in addition to numerous support technicians and student workers.

And last but certainly not least, Georgia’s peanut growers this past spring rejected an increased assessment for their commission that would have provided additional funding for research. Producers were asked to increase their assessment from $2 to $3 per ton, but only 25 percent of producers even bothered to vote, and the favorable vote was 56.2 percent in a referendum that required a 66.7 percent majority to pass.

While the reasons for the vote remain unclear, as well as the abysmally low number of ballots returned, one thing is crystal clear. Going forward, the only “sure thing” in terms of agricultural research will be that which is funded by the growers themselves. Everything else is a crapshoot.

phollis@farmpress.com.  

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