For several decades, every time legislators cut federal and state budgets, agricultural research and Extension programs bled a little, losing a program here, an employee there, or a needed piece of equipment or facility somewhere else.

By the mid-1980s, agricultural colleges had to scrounge for funds to augment state and federal money that no longer fully supported demands for both basic and applied research. Industry helped, but research still needed a system to assure credibility, funds with no strings attached.

Most institutions continue to look. But a group of Northeast Texas farmers, concerned that unique conditions in their area would generate little research funding, decided to create an entity to determine research and educational needs and develop a means to help finance special projects.

In 1987, they founded Cereal Crops Research Incorporated (CCRI) and began working with scientists at nearby East Texas State University, now Texas A&M University at Commerce.

“Times were not real good for farmers back then,” recalls Maynard Cheek, a retired Hunt County farmer, currently president of CCRI and a board member since its inception.

“Jim Swart (Extension IPM specialist housed at TAMU-Commerce) and Don Reid (an agronomist and professor at the school) met with a group of farmers and discussed the possibility of developing a grower controlled non profit corporation. Farmers jumped at the opportunity.”

Their bylaws specify that their primary goal is to support production research for the benefit of local growers and taxpayers. Another goal was to create an education program for agriculture students, most of whom had no farm background. The premise was to teach students how to make a crop.

They learned to run farm equipment, plant, manage and harvest. They also marketed their products, and if they made a profit, they kept it, after paying CCRI for the seed and fertilizer it furnished.

“We didn't have a lot of money at first,” Cheek says, “but we contributed in other ways. We donated used equipment. We provided land for student plots and we helped them plant and harvest.

“We also got industry involved. In fact, the idea for providing ag students with on-farm experience came from industry.”

But Cheek says students are not the only beneficiaries.

“Students who go into ag-related industry will eventually work with us,” he says. “If they understand what we go through to make a crop, they relate to our needs better.”

Some research efforts hit even closer to home. He says the Northeast Texas region has some unique characteristics.

“We have a lot of blacklands and mixed dirt and little research to show how best to produce crops in these soils.”

Through CCRI, farmers can earmark funds for specific research projects “and find ways to solve our problems. Newsletters and field days help us make production decisions.”

Swart says CCRI provides guidance for the cooperative research efforts of TAMU-Commerce and Texas Cooperative Extension.

Cheek says the funds generated through CCRI provide only part of the necessary money for thorough research and demonstration projects, but contributions allow scientists to stretch state and federal dollars much farther.

CCRI also helps fund an annual production seminar, the Ag Technology Conference, held in December. “We get a lot of information from that meeting,” he says.

Kenneth Wright, another Hunt County farmer and a charter member of the CCRI board, says CCRI helps ag students, helps the agricultural industry by producing employees who understand farming and also aids farmers by researching immediate problems.

“Demonstration trials that identified wheat varieties resistant to stripe rust have already influenced what we plant,” he says. Nearly 100 percent of the wheat planted in the area this year was a resistant variety, Swart says.

Stripe rust, which devastated the wheat crops the last few years, has been a virtual no-show in the area.

“We also hope to find a hard wheat that will do well in this area,” Wright says. “We can get an additional 60 cents per bushel for a hard wheat, but, so far, we don't have one with yield equal to our soft varieties.”

Myers Vittetoe, another board member, agrees that applied research, funded in part by CCRI funds, provides almost immediate help to grain and cotton farmers. “The program has helped us immensely, especially with new wheat varieties,” he says.

Vittetoe raises cotton and wheat and runs a cotton gin in Hunt County. “We often plant cotton based on what the TAMU-Commerce research plots show us,” he says. “We're always interested in using something that works better.”

Vittetoe agrees, too, that teaching students how to farm provides a unique perspective for future industry leaders.

Reid, who teaches many of the students in that program, says the germ for CCRI came from industry. And he argues that CCRI provides a unique insight for university educators and researchers to consider.

“Often, we find ourselves telling farmers what we think is good for them. Through CCRI, farmers tell us what they think is good for them. We work for the growers and we have to bear that in mind as we set up research and teaching programs.”

He says CCRI board members serve as innovators. “We simply facilitate. Our relationship with the board is advisory only. Growers absolutely control the organization. No one other than a grower has a vote. We feel privileged to work with this dedicated group of farmers.”

Cheek says CCRI sees a lot of opportunities to serve agriculture in the future. “We have room to grow,” he says. “We see more interest from students in agriculture and they want the experience they get from making a crop. This is the only place in Texas with such a program.”

rsmith@primediabusiness.com