Carolina ag research battle heats up

Control over North Carolina's agricultural research stations has been brewing for a couple of years now. On May 8, the simmering controversy was expected to boil over as the state legislature was presented a report on the disposition and management of these 18 state-owned agricultural research facilities.

In effect the boil went back to a simmer as the General Assembly simply accepted the controversial report. The report was referred to House and Senate agriculture committees for further evaluation.

Farmers and agricultural leaders from all corners of the state were on hand for the emotion-charged May 8 meeting at the State House in Raleigh. Among the most vocal of the attendees were officials from the towns that would be the most economically affected by closure of the research facilities targeted by the report.

The roots of the controversy go back to 2006 when a proposal to change management of the state's agricultural research station system was defeated in the North Carolina Senate. The following year the Program Evaluation Division (PED) of the state's combined General Assembly was charged with preparing a report to determine exactly what should be the plight of these agricultural research facilities.

At issue, says North Carolina Ag Commissioner Steve Troxler, is the 90-plus years of investment made by the taxpayers of North Carolina in the research station system. A system, he contends, has worked well and helped farmers for over 90 years.

The PED was specifically commissioned to study the structure and management practices of the 18 agricultural research stations currently managed by the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, considering ways to achieve efficiency savings and to determine whether the consolidation or transfer of these stations to another state department was “desirable and feasible”.

Currently, North Carolina State University owns six of the 18 facilities and the Department of Agriculture owns 12. Management of all the facilities is by the Department of Agriculture.

In fiscal year 2006-2007 North Carolina allocated $21.7 million for agricultural research. Roughly half that amount was allocated to the Department of Agriculture and half to North Carolina State University. North Carolina A&T University was allocated a seemingly token $980,000.

On April 5, the 19-page PED report draft, which was stamped in big, bold letters CONFIDENTIAL, was released to the three entities involved in the study — North Carolina State and North Carolina A&T universities, and to the Department of Agriculture and Human Services. The confidential draft of the report proved to be anything but confidential.

Officials from each of the three organizations weighed in with letters to John Turcotte, director of the PED. And, copies of the confidential report wound up in the hands of anyone either side thought would help bolster their case.

Legally, none of the three organizations involved in the controversy was prevented from distributing the confidential copy — if asked.

At the crux of the controversy is the disposition of several of the 18 research stations currently operated by the State Department of Agriculture. The confidential draft report called for a cut in agricultural research stations — $3.8 million (recurring) and $54.7 million (non-recurring). It also recommended selling in their entirety seven research stations, including Border Belt, Castle Hayne, Mountain, Oxford, Umstead, Upper Mountain and Upper Piedmont — as well as land at other research stations.

Shutting down these facilities, Troxler says, would cost the jobs of 61 valued state employees. He points out the staff of these facilities, by all accounts, have done a good job and don't deserve to be fired for doing what they were hired to do.

The PED report states that recommendations contained in the report are based on:

  • Interviews with 17 administrators from North Carolina State and North Carolina A&T universities and the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Human Services (NCDAHS).

  • Interviews with agriculture focus groups.

  • Interviews with 13 North Carolina State and North Carolina A&T faculty members.

  • A survey of 310 North Carolina State and North Carolina A&T researchers, with a 62 percent response.

  • A survey of 103 commodity groups with a 60 percent response.

  • Surveys and interviews with leaders of 13 state agriculture research systems.

  • 2002-2007 fiscal and research grant data.

Troxler vehemently denies he had meaningful input into the initial investigation of the research system by the PED. The Commissioner further states in a letter to John Turcotte, manager of the PED, that he has been denied access to some of the information on which the original PED report was based.

“The report was written by academics with little exposure to actual agricultural research. Implementation of these unfounded recommendations would do irreparable harm to the state's No. 1 industry — agriculture,” he says.

“We strongly oppose North Carolina State's takeover of these 18 research stations. And, I urge the state not to cash in and walk away from a 90-year investment,” Troxler adds.

Johnny Wynne, who is Dean of the College of Agriculture at North Carolina State University, is equally vehement in his contention that no one within the agricultural program at North Carolina State has advocated in any way the closing of the 18 research stations.

Wynne says some of these research facilities have tremendous value as research centers because of their unique soil types and growing conditions associated with their geographical location in the western part of North Carolina.

He contends the independent research programs conducted by scientists at North Carolina State University and North Carolina A&T University are primary reasons for the growth and success of the agricultural industry in the state.

In a letter to Southeast Farm Press Wynne says, “I regret the release of this report has caused consternation among our state's agricultural community. I understand the concern of farmers and the agricultural leaders. The research stations are an integral part of the research, teaching and Extension programs in the College of Agriculture, and the PED points out how important these programs are to the success of the state's agricultural industry.”

“I hope we don't lose sight of the fact that our research stations exist to serve as real world laboratories where the faculty at North Carolina State and North Carolina A&T can find ways to strengthen North Carolina agriculture,” Wynne says.

Whether there are truly independent research studies at any of the Nation's 100-plus Land-Grant universities is questionable at best. A recent study shows that all Land-Grant institutions now receive more private than tax dollars for research. In fact, in some states, well over 50 percent of agricultural research is supported by private money, making the Land-Grant institutions technically more private than public research institutions.

In many, if not most states, technologies used on research farms don't compare to modern high tech equipment used on many large, successful farms. Not having the resources to use modern high tech equipment, such as variable rate seeders and spreaders and GPS-guided tractors and farm implements put some research programs so far behind it makes results of many tests questionable at best and too frequently non-applicable to modern farming operations.

Clearly there is a need to modernize many of the agricultural research facilities in North Carolina. Indeed, the PED report sites interviews with other states as reason to consolidate funds and allocate these scarce dollars to upgrade remaining facilities. A major question among many farmers and agricultural leaders in the state, including the Commissioner of Agriculture is how these funds would be spent.

Speaking at the May 8, meeting, Troxler said the Department of Agriculture and Human Services agrees there should be well thought out and extensive long-term planning for all of North Carolina's research facilities. However, closing any of these facilities without just cause is not the best way to benefit agriculture in the state, Troxler said.

If recommendations for closure of some of these facilities and selling off land is carried out, as is called for the PED draft, many wonder who will guarantee these funds will be used for the betterment of agriculture in the state.

Wynne credits the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Commissioner Troxler with doing a great job of promoting North Carolina agriculture. However, he says, “Promotion is not research and our research stations are not farms.”

Wynne says he understands the major point of concern by many involved in agriculture in the state is management of the 18 research stations. He contends North Carolina State is well within its rights to assume management of these facilities.

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