What is in this article?:
- Sub-tropical research center falls victim to federal budget woes
- Criticism from supporters
- USDA’s only subtropical agriculture research center now sits dormant on the South Texas prairie.
- USDA personnel are confirming that the Weslaco Center is one of the 259 USDA offices and facilities that will be closed this summer.
- Suspension of research and the closing of the Weslaco Center have garnered harsh criticism from local supporters.
Like a fallen fort on America’s great frontier, USDA’s only subtropical agriculture research center now sits dormant on the South Texas prairie, a sleeping giant on the Texas-Mexico border, a condemned prisoner waiting on the executioner’s arrival, its rich history and noble cause lost in a federal budget reorganization and controversial policy decision that some say will put U.S. agriculture at risk from foreign invasive pest species and diseases that could ultimately threaten U.S. agriculture and food safety.
Known for such pioneering work as boll weevil eradication in cotton, fever tick eradication in cattle, control and eradication of invading tropical fruit flies, citrus greening and zebra chip research, the USDA-ARS Kika de la Garza Research Center in Weslaco 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 honey bees.
In addition, the Center is instrumental in the development of biofuels from sugar, hot water dips for importation of certain produce products and for setting international standards for radiation and quarantine of agriculture plants and products.
While the official notice of closure is expected in a list scheduled for release later this month, USDA personnel are confirming that the Weslaco Center is one of the 259 USDA offices and facilities that will be closed this summer as part of a plan known as the “Blueprint for Stronger Service," a budgetary reorganization designed to trim some $150 million from the agency’s budget.
Overall, since 2010, Congress has reduced USDA discretionary spending by nearly 12 percent, or more than $3 billion. Included in the ‘Blueprint Plan’ is the reorganization or closing of facilities and programs operated by the Farm Service Agency, Rural Development, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the Agricultural Research Service and the Food and Nutrition Service.
“All research activity has stopped and we have already furloughed some 60 employees from the Center,” says USDA’s Dr. Robert Mangan, acting director at the Weslaco Center for the past three years. “We are currently awaiting final reassignments for our research staff and are expecting to permanently close the doors by June.”
Mangan says ten research service facilities are scheduled for closing but notes the Weslaco Center is larger and of broader scope than the other nine centers combined. Located in the middle of a fruit fly eradication zone, the Center is the only ARS research unit with secure quarantine facilities for fruit flies.
“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 invasion will be greatly increased,” Mangan adds.
The Center is located 12 miles from the largest port of entry for commercial and contraband mangos, citrus, guavas and avocados, and the second largest port for produce originating outside the U.S.