Farmers defend partnership with university systems

ATLANTA — Farmers took to the lectern at the Capitol Tuesday to defend funding for university system-driven research and innovation in agriculture.

Partnerships between Georgia farmers and universities have contributed to globally renowned agricultural improvements like water irrigation efficiency and drought tolerant turf grass.

But research may be put on pause with millions of dollars in cuts to the Agricultural Experiment Stations and Cooperative Extension Service programs.

Farmers and higher education leaders agreed, agriculture’s spot as the No. 1 industry in Georgia wouldn’t be maintained without the innovations from University of Georgia and other institutions with agriculture programs.

“People say that Atlanta is the engine that drives Georgia,” Rep. David Knight, chairman of the Appropriations Higher Education committee said, “I would tell you that agriculture and rural Georgia is the fuel that makes that engine go.”

Under the governor’s budget proposal, agriculture experimental stations — research driving facilities — and cooperative extension services — agents who bring training to farmers — are set to lose nearly $14 million in fiscal years 2020 and 2021 combined.

Casey Cox, a sixth generation farmer in Mitchell County, said University of Georgia research is “critical” to her farm and farmers across rural Georgia.

“Agriculture is not only significant at the local level in rural Georgia where I live, but at the state, national and international level,” Cox told the committee. “We are an international powerhouse when it comes to the goods we produce.”

Advances in irrigation techniques developed by University of Georgia scientists increased water efficiency by 25 to 20%, she said. Variable rate irrigation helped her farm alone cut down on water use by 15%.

Agriculture innovations like that one are being developed in Georgia, tested by Georgia farmers and commercialized globally, she said. UGA water efficiency data lended a hand at the federal level to help Georgia gain significant legal ground in longstanding water wars with Florida.

“We are stewards of the land as farmers,” Cox said. “But we also need to learn about new technologies and new practices.”

If the university system isn’t there to fill the need for research as an unbiased stakeholder, she said, farmers will have to look to industry stakeholders who are pushing their own products.

“It’s really critical we continue to prop-up that research and support that research because it has a direct impact on us every single day as farmers,” Cox said. “The research, the innovation, the delivery system we have in place is what allows us to continue succeeding and with all the other challenges we are facing. Cutting a budget that impacts us like this will only contribute to all the other challenges we are facing.”

Ben Copeland, a turf grass farmer in Fort Valley, said that this rural issue will impact urban areas.

“You all have turf grass in your districts,” he said. "You may not have peanuts, you may not have blueberries, but you all have turf grass.”

The UGA campus in Tifton developed a turf grass that is both drought and shade tolerant in 2016. Four years later, it covers more than 7,000 acres all over the world, he said.

Copeland said he pays $300,000 in royalties alone to UGA which goes straight back into more research.

“It is one of those rare cases,” he told lawmakers, “where a little bit of state funding actually leverages into a huge number for more research, more of everything.”

Farmers also pay out-of-pocket expenses to host “home trials” of experiments, Rep. Clay Pirkle, R-Ashburn, vice chair of the Appropriations Committee, said.

“It is at the expense of the farmer, but the farmers realize the importance of this research and the partnership that the farmers share with the University of Georgia,” Pirkle said. “It provides the best data that farmers use to make decisions going forward.”

Bart Davis, chairman of the Georgia Cotton Commission and Colquitt County farmer, said that two vacant cotton specialist positions on the chopping block are only vacant at this time by chance.

It’s a “concerning situation,” he said.

Rep. Sam Watson, R-Moultrie, who chairs the Appropriations General Government Subcommittee, speaking as a farmer said: "Through all the weather events that we've had, through all the trade wars, through any problems whether they are insects or disease, the hurricane, increasing input costs. Cooperative extensions and the experiment station has been only constant has been there to allow us to get through all of these difficult times and allowed us to be more efficient and more effective and stay in business."

Dale Green, dean of the UGA Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, said his research budget is facing a 15.4% cut, with no explanation as to why.

Lawmakers and budget officials did share the same opinion that funding for the experiment stations and cooperative extension services comes from a complicated mix of sources.

In a meeting earlier on Tuesday, Kelly Farr, budget director for the governor’s office of planning and budget, suggested agriculture and cooperative extensions can fall back on other funds like fee collection and grants.

Farr said that the office suggested the college of agriculture fall back on $13.4 million in unrestricted funds it has accumulated rather than using sate funds or eliminating positions. Farr said the college's unrestricted funds have grown from grown 45% from fiscal year 2015 to fiscal year 2019.

But Samuel Pardue, dean of the UGA agricultural college, and other speakers said most of those funds are restricted for certain uses and he isn't sure what numbers Farr is referring to.

Lawmakers are also confused as to why cuts don't line up with the 4% and 6% mandates across other state programs.

Watson said he doesn't understand why some programs are taking deeper cuts than others.

"We're asking them to do their part and plus some," he said. "Which in turn is going to affect my operation and every other Georgia farmer's operation because we depend on them for the research and for the knowledge that they have."

Riley Bunch covers the Georgia Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites.

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