Ag researchers learning to do more with less

A good argument can be made that publicly funded research is the lifeblood of U.S. agriculture. So, it's especially troubling to hear reports from Alabama that, due to a shortfall in state funds this year, certain agricultural research projects will be curtailed or postponed.

And Alabama certainly isn't alone. Other Southeastern states that shortsightedly depend on sales tax revenues to fund higher education are beginning to feel the effects of a slowing economy, and land-grant universities especially are being forced to make program cutbacks.

There are no quick solutions to this problem, and agricultural researchers most likely will have to continue to do more with less. It'll become increasingly important that researchers find innovative ways to get the most bang from the ever-shrinking research buck.

One solution is to share resources across state lines. Peanut researchers in the lower Southeastern states of Alabama, Florida and Georgia already are recognizing the importance of erasing state boundaries and conducting more common research.

Several projects currently are under way involving Extension specialists and researchers in the three states. They're looking at ways of increasing production efficiency and preventing tomato spotted wilt virus in peanuts. And these research findings will be readily adaptable in Alabama, Georgia or Florida due to similarities in soil types, climate and other factors.

Southeastern peanut researchers also set an example for how to conduct shared research when they sought funds from the newly formed National Peanut Board. The board is funded by grower assessments, with 20 percent of the money going back to the regions for peanut research.

The Southern Peanut Farmers Federation, composed of the Georgia Peanut Commission, the Alabama Peanut Producers Association and the Florida Peanut Producers Association, was chosen to be the certified organization to determine which research projects from the lower Southeast would be funded. A committee then was formed and is made up of the executive directors of the three state peanut groups, in addition to two researchers or Extension specialists from each state.

This committee met and sent out invitations to everyone in the Southeast who might have an interest in conducting peanut research, says Dallas Hartzog, an Auburn University Extension peanut specialist and one of Alabama's representatives on the committee.

“We invited them to send a pre-proposal back to our committee, outlining their research. We asked them to join together with their fellow scientists from across the Southeast and develop joint projects that would work across all states,” says Hartzog.

The committee, he says, initially received 56 pre-proposals for Southeastern peanut research. These eventually were whittled down to 20.

“We asked these 20 applicants to come back and present a full proposal. In most cases, these were joint efforts among the three states — Alabama, Georgia and Florida — with common interests,” says Hartzog. “Heavy consideration was given to the projects that will have a very fast payback, with less consideration given to those ‘pie in the sky’ proposals that we thought would offer good information, but it might come too late to help many of our growers who need help very quickly.”

An example of a shared research project is one approved by the committee which will investigate the nutrient benefits of broiler litter on peanuts, he says.

“The broiler industry is big business in Alabama and Georgia, and it's moving to the peanut belt of these states. Since 1990, we've looked at the response of peanuts to broiler littler, and we found that it always was very helpful in increasing peanut yields. Georgia researchers, meanwhile, found just the opposite. In some tillage systems, they found that litter actually decreased yields. With money from the national peanut checkoff, we're now going to work together on this project,” notes Hartzog.

Another shared research project is looking at developing new and improved peanut varieties while another is working to develop a risk index for reducing aflatoxin in peanuts, he says.

“In this time of economic decline on the farm, these projects offer great promise for helping farmers become competitive through research,” says the agronomist.

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