In recent years, university agricultural research funding has too often been short. The new reality for researchers and administrators is a near-constant scramble to find ways to keep research programs afloat.
The March 1 sequester, says Michael Mazourek, further jeopardizes the gains made in research programs. Mazourek,an assistant professor in Cornell University’s Department of Plant Breeding and Genetics, tells a story that he insists could be told by agriculture professors and researchers across the country.
“I’m a vegetable breeder and have new varieties that end up in seed catalogs. We also do the initial ‘rough draft’ of germ plasm that goes to the seed companies and they take that to the finished cultivar. In addition, we do a lot of genome metabolite nutrition research.
“All that requires a lot of trials on grower farms to ensure that the things we develop actually works in the field. If it doesn’t work on the farm, it just wastes everyone’s time.”
Unfortunately, in terms of public perceptions, agricultural research has a high hill to climb.
“Many people have the image of a faculty member, a professor, sitting in a big chair, reading dusty books from the library while smoking a pipe with heels up. Of course, that’s not what we’re doing.
“To get everything done, I’ve invested a lot in recruiting a dedicated staff. They’re key to everything we do. So, I spend a lot of time trying to make payroll, keep enough grants coming in to fund the research and keep momentum going.”
Developing a new vegetable is often a multi-year process. That requires a team that’s in it for the long haul and funding to keep it in place.
“Getting a grant is very tough. Often, you’re looking at a 1 or 2 percent success rate. That means instead of sitting with pipe in hand and my feet up, I spend time writing grant application after grant application, bringing the best arguments I can trying to persuade someone to fund us. Every once in a while we’re lucky enough to get that funding.”
One grant the Cornell team is part of is being led by Oregon State University. “It’s one of the big OREI (Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative) USDA grants that involved farmers, getting new varieties. We have a lot that’s almost ready to release – we just need to increase seed.
“That grant was set to renew this year and, right now, I should be writing the renewal request. And actually, the budget category for the grant was increased because the whole program has been so successful for the USDA. But with the sequestration, as far as I can tell, we have a big budget but there’s no money allocated. That means they’re not accepting renewal applications.”
Will Mazourek be forced to furlough team members?
“In our case, we were lucky enough to have a rainy day fund. However, we’ve been dipping into it so much there’s not much left. We can see the bottom of the barrel.
“I hear the same thing from other researchers, regardless of region.”
Agricultural research, Mazourek points out, provides stability to the markets. It’s also the place where people are trained in agricultural disciplines, the place where the next generation of specialists and consultants come from.
And it’s very hard to absorb the lack of funding.
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“Others have it worse than I do, though. The potato breeders are in a special bind. Every year they plant tubers in the ground, which will last only a year if they aren’t regenerated. Without proper funding to plant those and, at a minimum, harvest them to storage for next year, all their work will be for naught. Decades and decades of progress could just end.
“Think about the research on vineyards and orchards. You can’t just stop hiring someone to irrigate the crops.
“The situation for vegetable breeders like me is a bit milder. We can put seeds in the fridge and, hopefully, weather the storm.”
Waiting for magic
Asked about the role of research in keeping disease and pests at bay while providing food security, Mazourek says too many have a rosy view about how quickly issues can be tackled.
“We’ve assembled the team to tackle the problems that exist. If you dissolve the team, the problems don’t just go away.
“Say you shut things down just for a year. Well, diseases will be a year ahead when we come back to research. The diseases will gain an advantage.
“In our case, we have disease–resistant genetic material that’s one generation away from being in growers’ hands in a big way. It’s agonizingly close to release and we’re being tripped an inch from the finish line in some cases.
“Long-term, when the funding comes back, how do you keep quality people with expertise? Will I have to start from scratch to find such quality?”
What about commodity groups and check-offs? Are they filling the gap at all?
“I wish we got some of that funding. There is some industry support for research but, otherwise, it’s one year to the next grant proposals.
“Working on what’s seen as minor crops, we used to get state funding. That’s almost all gone, now, especially in New York where we had a big hit in the stock market (in 2008).”
Cornell had a much better, more conservative strategy with investments than others. “They’ve helped us weather the storm the best they can. It hasn’t been good but it could have been much worse so the administration should get credit.”
Some non-profit groups have been “very good advocates for us. The last farm bill, there was a lot of push to get some programs for specialty crops. The public was interested in helping fruits and vegetables.”
Mazourek returns to the need for the public to understand what’s at stake.
“What we’ve come to realize is the general public can’t really relate to why there should be investment in research for farmers when their numbers are shrinking. It’s a logic that’s difficult to overcome: If one percent of the population is farmers, why should 99 percent of the population have their taxes go to support them?
“A newer development is we’ve been asked to write impact statements. We’re scrambling to show how our work affects the consumer. Hopefully that will help the public care about agricultural research being shut down.
“We have to get our stories out and move from behind the scenes to the front. It’s difficult because there’s a lot of noise competing for attention.”
Luckily, much of what the Cornell team does fits in with current food trends.
“People want local, regional, sustainable food systems. As a vegetable breeder, that’s helping us raise awareness. People are slowly beginning to understand that a lot of what we’re developing is showing up in seed catalogs, in the display racks at the local store.”
As for expectations for future research funding, Mazourek isn’t holding his breath.
“We’d hoped some of the lobbying efforts would work and funding would be restored. We hoped the course of events would be different.
“Now, we hope for magic – that something will happen during discussions in D.C. and a light will come on. But a lot of us are prepped for having a year off from being able to pursue funding. Realistically, it seems that 2013 will be ‘the year of no funding.’
Mazourek grew up on a local farm and is perfectly happy having dirt under his nails. “I know the hard work and hours farmers put in, the importance of their work. One of the things I’m doing at Cornell is trying to help make their lives easier. We develop seeds that works well for organic growers locally. That helps make the agricultural communities in a regional sense more successful and economically viable.
“The last grant we got looks at all the warming trends in the Northeast. We know diseases and insects are moving in, overwintering, spreading due to different production practices. All the irrigation we’re using is pulling disease out of the ponds. The flooding we had moved water-borne pathogens to many new farms.”
In many cases, Mazourek has the seeds that can help in those situations. Or, the solution is tantalizingly close. “We have the answers and want to provide them. Instead, we’re being forced to spit the bit at the finish line.”
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