Agriculture colleges, extension get budget squeeze

As university budgets take a beating across the country, agricultural schools and extension programs are feeling the impact.

Large-scale layoffs have been threatened at some agricultural colleges, and even 4-H youth programs are facing the ax because federal and state funding are on the chopping block. At a time when farmers are being asked to grow more for food and fuel to meet soaring world demand, experts warn against eroding the country's commitment to agricultural research.

"We're mortgaging our future with some of these cuts," said Ian Maw, vice president for food, agriculture and natural resources at the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities.

Most state budgets are experiencing "real trauma," Maw said. Often, he said, schools are forced to cut into the "bone and marrow" of their capacity to serve agriculture.

Beverly Durgan, dean of the University of Minnesota Extension program, said cuts to agricultural colleges have far-reaching national impacts.

"As the funding slowly erodes away, the quality and the quantity of research and extension we can do at the land-grant universities is decreasing. People may not see the impact tomorrow but they will see long-term that not investing now means we'll have more problems in the future," said Durgan, chairwoman of an APLU agricultural committee.

Congress established land-grant universities in the 1800s to teach agriculture, science and engineering. It expanded their mission to include agricultural experiment stations to conduct research, and cooperative extension programs to translate research into practical help for farmers and the larger public.

Much federal support for these programs flows through the National Institute for Food and Agriculture, which took a 9 percent cut this fiscal year. Extension supporters largely beat back a House-passed $30 million cut in a key category of federal matching funds within NIFA that supports salaries for a wide range of extension services, from county agents to 4-H. But a fiscal 2012 funding bill that passed the GOP-controlled House this month cuts $35 million in those extension funds from the current level of $294 million. The Democratic-controlled Senate has yet to act.

Perhaps no agricultural college was threatened with deeper cuts this year than at Pennsylvania State University. Gov. Tom Corbett proposed reducing Penn State's total appropriation — including the farm school's — by 52 percent.

"I spent a day being dismayed and the next day decided I'd better address what we could address," said Bruce McPheron, dean of its College of Agricultural Sciences.

McPheron warned that the college faced 440 job cuts; closings of research stations and county extension offices; and cuts to 4-H, which reaches almost 10 percent of Pennsylvania's youth. After people told lawmakers how much they value Penn State's agricultural programs, he said it's likely reductions will be far smaller, probably between $5.5 million an $8 million.

"It's odd that you can be in a circumstance where a 10 to 15 percent cut seems like a win," McPheron said.

At the University of Georgia, Scott Angle, dean of the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, recently decided to lay off 18 workers and sell a farm. He said there was nothing else left to cut.

"We have tried as best we can — and to a fairly successful extent — to protect the learning experience for our students on campus but this does mean our research and extension capabilities have been compromised, Angle said.

Farm programs in the University of California system have already seen steep declines in state support over the last 20 years. Daniel Dooley, vice president of its Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, said he expects agriculture at the Berkeley, Davis and Riverside campuses will be cut less than most programs once California's $9.6 billion deficit is resolved, but it will be hurt.

"Final decisions haven't been made but the reality is with each reduction we're going to have to decide what we're going to do and what we're not going to do," Dooley said.

Jack Payne, senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources at the University of Florida, said his operations were "held harmless" in the Legislature this year. Florida construction and tourism were hard-hit by the recession, so he argued that agriculture and natural resources are now the backbone of the state economy.

At Iowa State University, agriculture has seen state funding erode since 2001. Wendy Wintersteen, dean of its College of Agriculture, said it's happening even as her enrollment rises 4 to 6 percent a year. She's planning for a 6 percent reduction in state funding — not as bad as it could be.

"We're getting to a better place in the state's economy, and agriculture is a big part of the state being able to recover from this economic downturn," Wintersteen said. "We're optimistic about the future and what we can contribute to the state."