Georgia looking in wrong places when it comes to budget cuts

If you’ve been keeping up with the news lately, then you know already that many states are bleeding red ink, as the lengthy recession continues to take its toll and the stimulus funds from Washington are exhausted.

And, enough of you have been through similar hard times that you understand that sacrifices must be made, and everyone has to take a hit.

But the University of Georgia has gone too far.

As of this writing, the university’s FY 2011 budget, as requested by the governor and state legislators, makes cuts to the state’s Cooperative Extension Service that go beyond draconian. Included is the elimination of all Georgia 4-H programs and half of the county Cooperative Extension offices. In addition, the proposal calls for closing the C.M. Stripling Irrigation Research Park in Camilla, the Vidalia Onion and Vegetable Research Center in Reidsville, the Attapulgus Research Farm and the Georgia Mountain Research Center in Blairsville. And it doesn’t stop there. The proposal, if adopted, also would close all 4-H facilities across the state and reduce state support for the UGA Veterinary teaching hospital. It would mean the elimination of 116 4-H positions and 169 Extension staff positions.

It would appear that agriculture is being asked to take a disproportionately large hit from a state that is trying desperately to make up for a $1 billion deficit. And of all things, Georgia is targeting its No. 1 industry.

According to USDA, there are almost 48,000 farms in Georgia that produce annual sales of more than $1,000 with an average farm size of 212 acres, and the state boasts 10.5 million acres of farmland.

Also, food and fiber production and related businesses represent the largest or second largest segment of all goods and services produced in two-thirds of Georgia’s counties, a report released by the University of Georgia Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development (CAED) shows. In 2008, Georgia agriculture had a total economic impact of $65 billion on the state economy and created more than 351,000 jobs.

Georgia ranks first in the nation in the production of broiler chickens, peanuts, pecans, rye and spring onions according to the USDA Agricultural Statistics Service. Nationwide, Georgia is also a leading producer of cotton, cucumbers, snap beans, cantaloupes, sweet corn, bell peppers, blueberries, peaches, watermelons, cabbage and squash.

The ironic thing about all of this is how much money states like Georgia will spend to lure new industry to the state on one hand while penalizing existing industries — such as agriculture — on the other.

An example is the new Kia automobile plant that recently began operations just across the Alabama line in West Point, Ga. State and local governments in Georgia offered the Korean automaker about $400 million in incentives — some $160,000 for every job the automaker promised to bring to the state. It’s reported that Mississippi offered about $1 billion for the same project.

Kia has relatively little invested in the venture, considering that the state of Georgia provided the land, prepared it for construction, and then offered enough tax incentives for a lifetime. If the automaker begins to experience a severe slump in sales, you can bet they’ll be quick to cut back their labor force and, if things get bad enough, maybe even abandon production in the state altogether.

Georgia farmers aren’t going anywhere — they have too much of their own blood, sweat and tears invested, and many of them have been here for generations

And having worked for Cooperative Extension at one point in my career, I know first-hand that the organization has always been required to show a healthy return for each tax dollar of support received. This is what makes the university’s bone-headed budget proposal doubly puzzling to me.

I don’t have enough room in this column to list even a fraction of Extension’s contributions to Georgia agriculture. It can easily be argued that programs such as the Tomato Spotted Wilt Virus Risk Index and recommendations for controlling Palmer amaranth pigweed have saved peanut and cotton production in the state, respectively, and those are just a couple of the organization’s more recent accomplishments.

Let’s hope other land-grant institutions don’t follow the poor example set by the University of Georgia’s budget proposal. But, considering the current state of the economy and the lack of foresight on the part of many administrators and legislators, it’s likely there’s more to come.

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TAGS: Legislative
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