The current recession has made for some well publicized strange bedfellows — the Federal Government and U.S. auto makers for one and the Federal Government and the banking industry for another. Perhaps more unfortunately, the current recession is likely to make enemies from friends and pit tax-supported programs like agricultural research and Extension programs against their traditional supporters in education and industry.
In academic circles the so-called Land-Grant Death Spiral has been talked about for years. The general public doesn’t generally understand the phenomena or its importance. If research and Extension programs went away all of a sudden versus the predicted slow death spiral, the general public likely wouldn’t know or care — after all well over 90 percent of us no longer live on a farm.
As the infrastructure that made us the greatest food producing nation in history begins to erode, the public will likely take notice. And, likely they won’t like what they find. What looked like a great tax dollar-saving cut during the recession won’t likely look so good once our revitalized economy starts importing double and triple the amount of food we currently bring into the U.S. The food might taste much the same, but the cost will be considerably harder to digest.
Though the analogy has been over-worked and is considerably flawed, consider how well we like depending on oil from Saudi Arabia compared to oil from west Texas. It’s easy to say we need to maintain our ability to feed ourselves, but it’s difficult to put that need ahead of other economic survival realities.
Land-Grant institutions across the country would have faced massive funding cutbacks during the current recession had it not been for Federal economic stimulus funding. Despite this infusion of dollars, many valuable agricultural programs have been cut and key personnel have not been replaced. In 2011, when no more stimulus funds are available, the loss of state-generated tax dollars during the recession will be felt with the full fury of a financial storm.
Among the casualties will be education programs — regardless of what you call them — all programs from kindergarten through doctoral programs at major universities, including agricultural research and Extension, are educational programs. In most states these programs are funded from the same tax trough and when stimulus monies run out, the trough is going to run dry much quicker than at any time in modern history.
The result will be heightened competition for dollars among both traditional enemies and friends within the education community. As with most wars there will be no real winners — some will only lose more than others. How long, how loud and how unified we in agriculture speak will be a determining factor in how agriculture programs survive the post-stimulus years.
Despite the infusion of Federal dollars, valuable programs, and even more valuable people are being lost and not replaced. What is happening in North Carolina is a microcosm of what is or will likely happen nationwide once all the recession and post-recession hoopla is written into history.
The dramatic loss of cotton and peanut acreage, though not altogether a casualty of recession, has produced a reduction in size and number of cotton gins and peanut buying and processing plants. The rapid loss of farmland to residential and business developments is second only to California. If there is a parallel, California clearly has not prospered by losing agricultural land.
Combined, these and many other economic-driven challenges put agriculture at risk. North Carolina and Georgia have long been the agricultural leaders in the Southeast — in terms of number of acres, livestock numbers and diversity of farming operations. How these states cope with economic challenges in the next few years will provide some insights as to how things will go for agriculture in the Southeast.
In the last couple of years North Carolina State University has lost some of its most valuable agricultural people, including the Chancellor of the North Carolina State system Jim Oblinger — a long-time supporter of agriculture in the state.
A more direct impact will come from the loss of long-time North Carolina State Entomologists—John Van Duyn and J.R. Bradley and most recently Alan York. These leaders have had high profile careers, but plenty of other agricultural leaders in the state have been lost to retirement and industry. Replacing these positions will be challenge enough in these economic hard times. Replacing nearly 100 years of combined experience of Bradley, Van Duyn and York, experience that has directly helped North Carolina farmers, will be a tall hill to climb.
North Carolina isn’t unique in terms of losing leaders or infrastructure. How we in the agricultural community cope with and compensate for these losses will have major impact on the success of agriculture in the Southeast in the coming years.