In spite of anticipated deep budget cuts from both the State of Texas and the federal government, Texas AgriLife Research and Extension, as well as the Texas Forest Service and Texas Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory — all part of the Texas A&M University System — will continue to serve the state’s farmers, ranchers, landowners and consumers as they always have.
Mark Hussey, vice chancellor and dean, Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, expects as much as a 16 percent budget reduction from the state and a possible 10 percent or greater cut in federal funding.
Along with Director of AgriLife Extension Ed Smith and Director of AgriLife Research Craig Nessler, Hussey recently discussed with Southwest Farm Press the challenges faced with budget reductions.
“These cuts will create challenges as we go forward,” he says. “But the mission of (Texas A&M AgriLife) agriculture will stay the same and we will continue to fulfill that mission.”
Hussey says he’s working with all four divisions to find ways to streamline programs and increaseefficiency. “We’re making certain we communicate with each other,” and are looking for ways to cooperate “as we have always done. We will work to insure a minimal impact on food, feed and fiber production.”
Hussey says reductions, insofar as possible, will be “across the board,” instead of targeted to specific programs.
Nessler says some research programs may be re-examined to determine if they remain cost-effective and necessary for production agriculture in the state.
“We know we face a reduction in funding,” Smith says. The options are to increase income or make cuts, but, “A tax increase is not expected.”
He says absorbing deep cuts will affect operations but not the overall mission. “We can’t absorb these cuts without hurting our infrastructure. And 90 percent of our budget goes to personnel.”
He hopes to minimize personnel losses as much as possible by altering the way Extension delivers programs and services.
“We will request that some constituents pay a very modest fee for educational programs,” Smith says. He emphasizes that fees will be “very modest,” and will not come close to recouping the cost of an Extension seminar or conference. Those fees, he says, will help maintain the level of education programs to which farmers, ranchers and urban users have been accustomed.
Delivery systems to change
He says delivery systems also may change, especially for urban audiences. “We expect to use more technology to reach people. We will rely on the Web to provide information, and we will investigate opportunities to use communications and technology to be more effective and efficient.”
Smith says combining some agricultural production meetings may also conserve resources. “We may combine two county production meetings, for instance. In rural areas, we will continue to work through traditional education platforms, meetings, etc.; we will just be more efficient.”
Extension may rely on more volunteers to help accomplish its mission, he says.
Nessler says AgriLife Research may have funding opportunities not available to other agencies. “We have options to look for alternate funding to replace government reductions. We look for industry partners to help with research priorities.”
It’s not a new strategy; for example, Texas AgriLife research has worked through seed companies in the past to distribute varieties. And more recently, researchers have worked with energy companies to evaluate bioenergy sources and production techniques.
“We may use industry partners to move technology — germplasm, for instance — into the marketplace,” Nessler says. Texas AgriLife researchers work with a lot of variety development, but “do not control all the traits producers want. We participate with corporate partners so producers will benefit.”
Researchers will be working with industry on Texas problems and Texas solutions, but also on national and international efforts.
Nessler says the cooperative efforts allow AgriLife researchers to develop new products and systems with corporate support, while “retaining the credibility” that end users trust. “Everybody wins.”
Reminding legislators of the importance of agriculture to the nation’s economy and security and the crucial role agriculture research has played in increasing productivity and efficiency remains a challenge, he says.
“We can’t allow others to dictate price and availability of essential commodities. That would be a big mistake. I hope legislators recognize the importance of supporting agricultural research and education.”
Smith says he has a lot of faith and trust in legislators in Austin and Washington, and asks that they look at agricultural budget cuts fairly. “If we are treated fairly and equitably, we will not complain. We just don’t want to be targeted with unwarranted cuts.
No fat left
“These are not the first cuts we’ve made — we had big cuts in 2003, so we have already taken all the fat out of our budgets.”
He said he was not surprised at the proposed reductions. “But, it puts more stress on moving forward with things we are already doing. We are people- and service-oriented, so we will continue to do the best we can. We will still be Extension — our programs will not look much different.”
Nessler says needs for agricultural research continue, despite budget shortfalls. Water issues are critical throughout much of Texas, he notes, and “We need research to keep agriculture viable with less water availability. We will continue to do the research we need, but we may not use as many research sites.”
AgriLife Research and Extension will continue to work closely together—developing information and new products, disseminating it to users and then using information gathered from Extension to direct research to complete the circle.
“We conduct research the people want,” Nessler says. “But, we also look long-term and conduct basic research for future needs.”
Hussey says students “who want to make a difference,” should consider agriculture. Apparently they are. “Our enrollment is up,” he says.
Nessler says agriculture needs “the best and the brightest — we’ve always attracted them, but we need more. Agriculture is a way to help people.” The late Norman Borlaug is a perfect example, he says. “He saved more lives than any medical research. Agriculture is a noble profession.”
He says people involved in agriculture are, by nature, optimistic.
Government funding for agriculture is a sound investment, Hussey says, offering an “unbelievable 30 percent return on investment. That’s a key message to our legislators. They also should remember that agriculture accounts for 9 percent of our gross domestic product and one in five jobs.
“Agriculture is extremely important to the Texas economy. We have to convey that message and continue to talk about the impact our programs have.”
Other agricultural schools also face stiff budget cuts. Hussey says, and Texas A&M is “indebted to Texas farmers and ranchers for their support.”