Those involved in agricultural research have found federal funding increasingly difficult to secure.

Following the release of President Obama’s budget, multiple programs and research avenues — many vital to the continuing health and vitality of U.S. agriculture — are currently under threat.

Jim Vankirk, director of the Southern Regional IPM Center, is among those warning about the funding shortfall and potential consequences. Southwest Farm Press spoke with Vankirk in early June. Among his comments:

A quick rundown of the IPM hierarchy and set-up?

“In one way or another I’ve been involved with IPM (integrated pest management) since 1982. Most of the time, I have to explain to people what IPM is. Once you explain, they get it…

“First, this is about a lot more than just IPM centers. But IPM centers were founded back in 2000. There are four in the country, split up based on region. Here, we’re in the Southern region, which runs, roughly, from Virginia/Kentucky south and as far west as Texas.

“Each of the centers is funded with a little less than $1 million a year from the USDA. Our job is to promote and facilitate integrated pest management throughout the country.

“We’re all employees of land-grant institutions. I’m an employee of North Carolina State University.

“Annually, about 40 percent of our budget is passed on through competitive processes — either to research, Extension or education projects dealing with IPM. Another 40 percent is used for staff, travel, putting together meetings and things like that. The remaining 20 percent is indirect — it goes to the universities.”

For more on IPM Centers, see http://www.ipmcenters.org/.

On optimizing results in three areas…

“Basically, our job is to provide some infrastructure for people who care about IPM. For laypeople who aren’t familiar with IPM, obviously we manage pests. But we also are interested in optimizing results across three important things.”

Economics.

“We want to keep farmers in business and make sure they do a good job of protecting crops without too many inputs.

Environment.

“We want to protect the air, water and soil.”

Human health.

“We’re kind of right in the middle where stakeholders from various ends of spectrums meet. And that’s why we’ve been successful for over 30 years.”

Projects you’re involved with?

“It’s no longer just agriculture. Not only do the projects encompass weeds, disease and insects in major crops but also in many other settings. One of our biggest programs is IPM in schools. That may sound odd until you realize every school has a cafeteria. Are there cockroaches, ants and things in those cafeterias and are the right things being done to keep them out? Are safe materials being used for control?

“Termites are another good example. In the South, we certainly know plenty about termites. Any homeowner is concerned with them and IPM provides the best solution for control.

“IPM is relevant everywhere: Your home, your yard, your garden, your farmer’s field, your golf course, your parks, your schools.”

On using funds wisely and promises delivered…

“The IPM centers have gotten gold stars through the years for keeping track of the impacts we provide. Promises have been delivered upon and there are multitudes of examples.

“For example, the soybean rust project — which is peripheral to the center but we manage the money — is familiar to the South. That project led to $200 million in savings in a single year.”

On current difficulties in receiving federal funding…

“Until this year, Congress has come through with money to fund the programs. The real crisis currently has to do with a certain line item called ‘Section 406’ (which has been deleted from the president’s budget proposal for next year) that deals with several large research competitions and IPM centers.

“One of them that will probably strike a chord with some of your readers is the Methyl Bromide Transitions program that’s under 406. Your readers are aware that methyl bromide is being phased out over the course of about 10 years.

“Well, someone has to come up with an alternative to methyl bromide. The program addresses that and has been very successful in coming up with different approaches and teaching people how to use them.”

The atmosphere in D.C.?

“Things are tight and have been for years.

“There was a big change this year. At other times in the past, USDA budget proposals had proposed moving the ‘406’ programs to NRI (National Research Institute, which has been renamed Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, or AFRI). AFRI is still under USDA and gives out a lot of money through competitive grants.

“They used to talk about moving the 406 programs into AFRI and it would have been just an administrative change. If that happened, I don’t think anyone would be very worried. But this year, for the first time, the money was simply zeroed out with no mention that its IPM focus would be maintained after the move to AFRI.

“We risk losing all kinds of very important programs and IPM centers: Methyl Bromide Transitions, Risk Avoidance and Mitigation, and Crops At Risk all seem to be homeless at the moment and may go away.

“Of course, we never know what is in a Request for Applications (RFA) until it is released. The next AFRI RFA may include something focused on IPM much like ‘406’ has until now.”

How dire is the situation? How close are these things to ending without funds coming through?

“As I understand it, the new fiscal year budget should start on Oct.1, 2010. The regional IPM centers receive funds at the end of the fiscal year.

“Worst-case for the IPM centers are we’ll probably still have open doors for a short while longer. I’ll be able to answer the phone for two years before closing. We’ll use up the money that’s already been appropriated before it dries up.

“However, bigger programs like Methyl Bromide Transitions that fund research competitively would not have a competition next year. Without funding, where we normally have 20 or 30 projects per year, only the projects that are finishing up would keep working.”

Is it frustrating that you have to fight for funding for something so vital to society?

“There’s been a silver lining since (funding hasn’t been assured). Many, many people have come forward saying exactly what you’ve just expressed. I’ve been actually encouraged by the reaction.

“Administrations of land-grant universities have spoken up along with people and offices at the EPA. Grower and consultant organizations give me an even better feeling.”

What about the ASR (Asian soybean rust) program?

“Funding for the ipmPIPE, which started with Asian soybean rust, is in flux. This funding is not part of the ‘406’ funding that we’ve been talking about, although IPM Centers are heavily involved in the program. IpmPIPE won’t be funded in the same way it has been in the past.”

For more on ipmPIPE, visit http://www.ipmpipe.org/.

“There is an AFRI (RFA) out, right now. One part of that seems suitable to fund a PIPE-like proposal. I’m hopeful PIPE will still be around.

“As for soybean rust, it seems to me that the coalition of grower groups (United Soybean Board, North Central Soybean Research Project, state associations), state Extension specialists, USDA and IPM Centers have built a sustainable, long-term program to help manage the disease.

“I’m not sure everyone agrees with me on that assessment of the long-term prospects, though.”

Anything else?

“I understand that because of my position people might say, ‘You’ve got a self-interest in this.’ But my bigger interest is what will happen with public support for IPM in general so that when things like soybean rust come along we can deal with them.

“There are also a bunch of non-IPM programs that are in the same funding line with the same problems. I don’t focus on them because they aren’t my babies but they’re very important. Those include Organic Transitions, the National Integrated Water Quality Program, the National Integrated Food Safety Initiative and the NRCS’ effects assessment program.”

e-mail: dbennett@farmpress.com