Bill threatens to split North Carolina ag community

At a time when agriculture in North Carolina is losing farm land to other industrial and residential purposes at a record rate, and changes in cropping systems are at the zenith of technological needs, the state’s ag community is in a power struggle over control of ag research land and facilities.

The Research Stations Division of the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services currently maintains and supervises 15 research farms (nine owned by NCDA&CS, six owned by North Carolina State University) and three state farms (owned by NCDA&CS.

North Carolina Agricultural Research Service (NCARS) is the research arm of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at North Carolina State University. NCARS has a statewide mandate to conduct research to support the agricultural industry in North Carolina. NCARS includes nearly 400 scientists; more than 200 graduate students, researchers, research assistants and postdoctoral scientists; and roughly 400 technicians and support staff.

A Senate bill was introduced and passed by a 47-2 vote, and if approved by the House of Representatives and signed by the Governor, will give the Division of Research Stations to the Board of Governors of The University of North Carolina system, which will turn these over to North Carolina State University. North Carolina State has been charged in the bill to work with the NCDA&CS, the North Carolina Farm Bureau and other agricultural agencies to evaluate the agriculture research stations, make recommendations on which will be operated and which will be sold or converted to other uses.

North Carolina Commissioner of Agriculture, Steve Troxler notes this action was taken without any consultation or support of the Commissioner’s office and despite the Department’s efforts to develop coordinated strategic plans for the state’s research system over the past two years.

North Carolina State University, like the University of North Carolina, Appalachian State University and other state-supported institutes in North Carolina are administered by the University of North Carolina system. The consolidation and sale of agricultural land and facilities will be done through the UNC system by North Carolina State University.

In language that has been confusing at best to many North Carolina farmers, the Senate’s proposal expressly directs North Carolina State University to “consolidate and downsize the agricultural research stations” and to “determine which of the stations or farms should be retained by the state and which are non-critical and should be divested by the state.”

However, North Carolina State is being directed by the University System of North Carolina to make these moves, which is a reasonable and logical approach since North Carolina State is governed by the UNC System.

“In addition to setting a much needed, but little understood political precedence, the proposed bill would have some more immediate practical effects on the state’s agricultural industry,” according to Commissioner Troxler. He contends transfer of the entire Research Station division of the Department of Agriculture, along with 15,000 acres of prime farmland and over 160 employees to the University of North Carolina system would:

• Permit the University System of North Carolina to sell farmland and agricultural research assets in a manner determined solely by the Board of Governors of the UNC system.

• Divest the state’s interest in valuable farmland throughout the state via a process that is completely devoid of input from farmers, commodity groups, and local citizens

• Void a cooperative agreement between the Department of Agriculture and the University which has been in place for over 69 years, thereby eliminating the unique collaborative approach to agricultural research which has served the farmers and agricultural interests of North Carolina for decades.

According to Commissioner Troxler, “the current structure of North Carolina’s research efforts has provided more accountability to growers and more visibility to the public in a broad-based system enhanced by genuine cooperation. Many researches today have limited practical farm experiences. NCDA&CS provides a valuable link to growers and assures their voices are clearly heard with regards to all of our agricultural research operations. We cannot afford to lose the connection with thousands of farmers who are depending on us to work together.”

The proposed changes requested by the Senate began with informal conversations between North Carolina State administrators and two influential senators in the state. From these conversations, the senators requested and received a white paper, authored by Steve Leath, director of the North Carolina Agricultural Experiment Station.

The resulting legislation is part of a statewide expense cutting program being pursued by the North Carolina State Legislature. The internecine struggle between the Department of Agriculture and North Carolina State University for control of the state’s agricultural research programs is one that North Carolina State University hopes to avoid.

“We applaud the senators for taking the initiative to make our agricultural research system more efficient and more affordable. North Carolina has more state-supported agricultural research farms than any state in the country, and we simply cannot manage all of them efficiently with budgets that are available,” Leath stresses.

The Senate contends the consolidation is vital to the continuation of efficient agricultural research in the state. Their reasons for writing the bill and getting near unanimous approval are listed in a recent letter from President Pro Tempore of the North Carolina Senate, Marc Basnigh,t and include:

• The Senate provision re: agricultural research stations is designed to save money and improve ag research across the state by making it a more effective tool for helping farmers and the agriculture industry.

• Currently, administration of the research stations is conducted by the Department of Agriculture, while all of the research on these farms is conducted by the state's land grant universities, North Carolina State and, to a lesser degree, North Carolina A&T.

• Few if any other states have organized their research efforts this way — most have located the authority for administration and research at research stations in their Land-Grant universities.

• Following this national model will allow North Carolina to achieve significant new efficiencies by eliminating unnecessary administrative costs — and improve research.

• NCSU employs over 400 Ph.D. level scientists and over 1,000 employees to accomplish its ag research mission. North Carolina State alone conducts 98 percent of the research on the stations.

• Many of the current research stations managed by the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services are similar to the test farms of 50 years ago.

• North Carolina State University has extensive experience in operating outlying units and operates the University Field Laboratory sites.

• North Carolina State University has invested nearly $20 million dollars in their units in the last few years and enabled them to conduct modern science. No such investments have been made in the stations managed by NCDA&CS.

• In addition, the Senate provision calls for NCSU and other stakeholders in ag research to study the state's research efforts for ways to make them more efficient and effective.

• Currently, North Carolina has more than 19,000 acres in 25 research units — more units than any other state.

• The Senate provision requires the stakeholders in this process to consider consolidating — not eliminating — the research at these units, divesting unnecessary or outmoded facilities and reinvesting any receipts from this divestiture back into agricultural research.

• A similar effort some years ago led to the divestiture of some of the state's dairy resources, which were then plowed back into dairy research. Today, the state's research efforts for dairy farmers and their industry are much stronger as a result.

• The Senate provision includes a requirement that the North Carolina General Assembly is notified before any agricultural research stations are divested.

• The Senate provision is also a money-saver — moving the research stations to NCSU will save the state $2 million in administrative costs.

Basnight, who is one of the sponsors of the bill, points out that among the many bits of misinformation concerning the bill is its confusion with an agricultural research park that is being developed in Kanapolis, N.C. “While the Senate strongly supports the Kannapolis agricultural research park, the agriculture research station provision is an entirely separate issue — the two are not connected in any way,” Basnight stresses

The change in direction of the state’s ag program, and one source of friction within the state’s ag industry is evident in the following language in the Senate bill:

“North Carolina State University is designated as the lead agency for all of the state's agricultural research stations and research farms, including those already under the direction and control of North Carolina State University on June 30, 2007, and those that are transferred to North Carolina State University by subsection.”

The subsections that mandate the transfer and disposition of property state that North Carolina State University will:

• Manage the agricultural research stations and research farms.

• Consolidate and downsize the agricultural research stations and research farms to make them operate more efficiently and to reduce administrative costs beginning with the 2008-2009 fiscal year.

• Evaluate each agricultural research station and research farm to determine which of the stations or farms should be retained by the state and which are non-critical and should be divested by the state.

North Carolina State is charged in the Senate proposal to report back to the Senate in March of 2008 as to which research facilities should be sold. Subsequently, proceeds from sale of land and facilities will be reinvested back into the state agricultural economy. However, a sticking point is that ‘how’ those funds are to be reinvested will be administered through the University of North Carolina system by North Carolina State University.

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