A bill passed recently by the North Carolina Senate has sent shock waves through the ag community in the state and left many wondering who is driving the bus in one of the South's most prosperous agricultural industries.
Though it is infinitely more complicated, simply put the North Carolina Senate is asking the University of North Carolina System's Board of Regents to manage the consolidation of agricultural research land and facilities currently administered by North Carolina State University and the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs.
The bill would transfer all agricultural research land to North Carolina State University, charging the Land-Grant institution to determine which facilities are phased out and which are retained.
North Carolina Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler says the bill was written and passed by the Senate without any consultation with his office. He claims passing the bill into law would rob the state of much needed practical agricultural research and displace hundreds of valuable employees.
Steve Leath, director of the Agricultural Experiment Station at North Carolina State University says the changes are badly needed. He lauds Senator Basnight for taking the initiative to improve the state's ag research system.
As would be expected the man with the winning hand is perfectly happy with the dealer and the man with a losing hand wants a re-deal. Caught in the middle are some of the state's more successful and influential farmers and agriculture industry leaders — some of whom have already been caught in the crossfire.
Admittedly, the current administration of agricultural research programs in the state is a bit unwieldy. Having worked nearly 25 years in a Land-Grant agricultural experiment station in another state, I can vouch for plenty of room for consolidation.
North Carolina is one of the few, if any, states that has part of its agricultural research program administered by a Commissioner of Agriculture. The bill spearheaded by Marc Basnight, president pro tempore of the Senate, is intended to make the system both more efficient and more affordable.
Few could validly argue the point of reducing cost and increasing efficiency in agricultural research, but HOW that is done is a question that may hold the very keys of existence for agriculture in the United States.
Agriculture in America was built on a strong infrastructure and research, teaching and Extension programs at Land-Grant institutions in each state are a key building stone in the foundation. Any changes, regardless of how well intended or badly needed, puts what has become a fragile infrastructure at risk.
A reason why farmers are able to farm more land and produce more products per acre is because agricultural research programs across America have been able to stay 10 to 20 years ahead of the technology curve, working with industry to develop and bring to the market the most cost efficient products and technology.
As the gap between developing technology and application of this technology gets shorter and shorter, the risks to agriculture get higher and higher. And, the pressure on farmers to produce more and more continues to grow. Likewise, as competition gets stronger and stronger and profits lower and lower, the pressure is ramped up on agriculture-based companies to get products to the market quicker and at a more favorable price structure to the marketing company. Combined, it seems to be the best ingredients for a lose/lose situation for everyone involved in agriculture.
For Land-Grant institutions the solution seems relatively simple. Agricultural experiment stations, colleges of agriculture and cooperative Extension systems around the country need to figure out for themselves a program that can be sold to and financed by consumers, because that's who makes up the modern day state house and senate in the Southeast and across the country. If consumers don't understand agricultural programs and support them, it's a good bet the politicians they elect won't either.
In North Carolina agricultural land is shrinking at an alarming rate. Changes from cotton, tobacco and peanut dominated agriculture to more diversified crops places increased demands for technology development and transfer on North Carolina State University and other ag constituencies in the state. The only hope for success is to work together.
The turf war over who is managing the research farms is one that doesn't need to be fought. As in any war there will never be a winner, just one side that loses less than the other.