The Kika de la Garza Subtropical Agricultural Research Center (SARC) in Weslaco, a facility operated by the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service along the U.S.-Mexico border in the Texas Rio Grande Valley, is a laboratory historically critical to agriculture research and a leader in detection of tropical diseases and pests affecting U.S. agriculture.

But the days of the center’s research could soon be over thanks to congressional budget cuts, which have earmarked the center for closure in the months ahead, a development local, regional and national agricultural groups are calling both tragic and potentially dangerous.

The Weslaco center, along with nine other ARS centers across the nation, is on a list of budget cuts that will result in the closing or reduction of field-based research conducted in South Texas, a key research location for inbound tropical pests and disease and the largest ARS research center in the U.S.

Food safety, international standards, invasive species -- these are serious concerns on the South Texas border, a place where fruit and vegetable production is a way of life and where nearly half of all Mexico fruit and vegetable exports enter the U.S. Losing the SARC increases the risks of accidental or intentional introduction of invasive species, a disruption of international commerce and contamination of the U.S. food supply.

“The scientists at this lab play a pivotal role in the fight against costly insect pests and invasive species by continuing to improve application methods such as internationally registered organic insecticides and quarantine technology and standards for imported fruits and vegetables,” says Ray Prewett, president of Texas Citrus Mutual in Mission, Texas. “In many respects the center is the first and last defense against subtropical pests and diseases entering the U.S. agriculture system from Mexico, and without this protection, serious consequences could develop that could have a devastating effect on the U.S. agriculture industry.”

Prewett has been traveling back and forth to Washington in an effort to lobby on behalf of the Weslaco research center, meeting with key budget appropriation officials at USDA-ARS and with key lawmakers in an effort to support what he called a “serious threat to agriculture.

“The citrus industry, potato industry, honey producers, vegetable producers, sugar growers and homeland security interests have all expressed concern over the potential closing or reduction in services offered by the lab. Frankly, there is growing concern for the U.S. food safety without the watchful eye of this important facility,” Prewett adds.

But in spite of his efforts along with a host of other agriculture support groups who are asking USDA to spare the center, the outlook is dismal.

“As it stands now, there appears to be little hope of saving the center as we know it today. It appears destined for closure,” he said in late September. “Funding has been authorized to continue operations (at the center) for about six weeks after the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1 (2011),  and partial funding is available for reduced programs through fiscal year 2012. But there’s little hope the center can be saved. Work has already begun, in fact, to determine what programs can be moved to other facilities such as universities and other ARS centers.”

Unique facility

The SARC is the only facility on the U.S. mainland that researches quarantine issues related to tropical pests and one of only four that does work on honeybees. Scientists at the center are engaged in such critical research as citrus greening, zebra chip in potatoes, fever tick eradication in cattle, control and eradication of invading tropical fruit flies—especially the Mexican fruit fly, which infests 150 kinds of fruits and vegetables—eradication of cotton boll weevil, the development of bio-fuels from sugar, hot water dips for importation of certain produce items, and setting international standards for radiation and quarantine.

Dr. Webb Wallace, executive director of the Cotton & Grain Producers of the Lower Rio Grande Valley, says the closure of the Weslaco center “would leave a hole in regional and national research efforts.

“We have experienced a period of success fighting boll weevil in U.S. cotton, but recent setbacks in Mexico’s boll weevil eradication program now threaten our well being on this side of the border, and the (Weslaco) SARC provides that buffer between  problems that could spill over the border,” Wallace says. “The loss of this valuable research center will leave holes in research and eradication programs like boll weevil and, more recently, the threat from verde bug.”

Wallace says the Weslaco center is especially valuable to South Texas cotton growers, the only sub-tropical cotton growing zone in the U.S.

“Cotton production in the Rio Grande Valley has declined in recent years, but we are seeing more acres this year than in recent years and cotton could continue to be a viable crop in the lower Valley, especially with support of programs and research like those provided by the Weslaco Center,” he added.

Dr. Robert L. Mangan, acting location director of the Kika de la Garza Subtropical Agricultural Research Center and Research Leader, Crop Quality and Fruit Insect Research, agrees and says the center’s proximity to Mexico makes it an important first line of defense against invasive tropical pests and diseases.

“The Lower Rio Grande Valley is one of the most dynamic agricultural systems in the United States, undergoing constant changes in local crop diversity as well as the flow of imported products from other countries. The scientists at the ARS Kika de la Garza Subtropical Research Center have historically been able to respond quickly and effectively to the pest problems associated with these conditions. Without the efforts of the center’s scientists, the risk of pest invasions would be greatly increased, threatening the viability of U.S. agricultural production. The Kika de la Garza Center is on the front line in the battle to preserve American agriculture,” Mangan says.

The center is the only ARS research unit with secure quarantine facilities for fruit flies and is located in the middle of a Fruit Fly Eradication Zone. Recently center scientists received a National Mango Board grant to evaluate the role of hydro-cooling mangoes after treatment to evaluate quality and security of treatments. He also points out the center is located less than an hour’s drive from the INIFAP regional center operated by the Mexican government, and says there has been a close relationship between the center and counterparts just across the border.

“In addition, the Center is located 12 miles away from the largest agricultural bridge port of entry in the U.S.  This represents the largest port of entry for commercial and contraband mangos, citrus, guavas and avocados. Technicians from the port of entry can deliver intercepted specimens for identification by an ARS scientist and propagate risk analysis the same day as the interception,” Mangan adds.

Economic losses

In addition to concerns for food safety, agricultural security and invasive pests and disease, closure of the center would greatly affect the economy of the Lower Rio Grande Valley. In a comprehensive study performed by Parr Rosson, Professor/Extension Economist and Director, Center for North American Studies, Department of Agricultural Economics, Texas A&M University, closure of the SARC would result in the loss of 227 jobs; 113 of those would be directly associated with center operations and scientific research and 114 attributed to the loss of purchases by the SARC or its employees.

The published report indicates employment losses would amount to $10.2 million in income, $6.3 million of which is attributed directly to salaries and wages at the Center. These losses in employment and income are estimated to subsequently reduce total economic output in the LRGV by a total of $27.1 million. Most of these economic losses would occur in the three-county region encompassing Cameron, Hidalgo and Willacy counties.

Texas is ranked third in value of U.S. agricultural production and Hidalgo county, where the SARC is located, is ranked 7th among the 254 counties in Texas. The value of agriculture in the LRGV is estimated to be $732 million with a statewide economic impact of $1.6 billion.

Supporters of the center say closure of the facility should not be an option, but with all resources expended to save the center, agriculture interests in the Valley are now pinning their hopes on Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison as they mount a last-ditch effort to keep the SARC open.

“The Weslaco SRC is unique in that it's the biggest, the only USDA research center on the border, and has proven to be a first line of defense against pests and diseases that can devastate crops,” adds Prewitt. “Senator Hutchison is on the Appropriations Committee, and local ag supporters in the Valley who have been lobbying and writing letters on behalf of the center are hoping her intervention will be successful.”