Budget cuts threaten OSU ag programs

Written by Bill Rautenstrauch, The Observer March 30, 2011 02:16 pm

4-H PROGRAMS COULD SUFFER: Union County 4-H members display goats at the Union County Fair. 4-H programs, which are administered by Oregon State University extension offices, could suffer if funding for the OSU statewide program is cut as proposed in Gov. John Kitzhaberís budget. Observer file photo
4-H PROGRAMS COULD SUFFER: Union County 4-H members display goats at the Union County Fair. 4-H programs, which are administered by Oregon State University extension offices, could suffer if funding for the OSU statewide program is cut as proposed in Gov. John Kitzhaberís budget. Observer file photo

Ag dean: Proposed reductions will devastate Extension services, agricultural experimental station, forest research lab

Oregon State University’s agricultural program has taken some hard budgetary hits in recent times, and with the state Legislature looking for ways to save money in the upcoming biennium, more are on the way.

That was the message from Sonny Ramaswamy, OSU’s dean of agricultural sciences, as he addressed public and private sector agricultural leaders in a meeting March 20 at Eastern Oregon University.

“We’ve got some interesting budgeting challenges ahead. I’m here to rally the forces,” Ramaswamy said as he outlined proposed cuts he says will devastate OSU Extension services, the agricultural experimental station and the forest research lab.

Ramaswamy said that when he took his job with OSU in 2009, he was told to reduce the College of Agricultural Sciences budget by $10 million.

It was painful, but at the end of the process the overall program was functioning at a level he felt he could live with.

“We eliminated positions, merged departments and reduced salaries, but we left the statewide footprint intact. We thought everything was good,” he said.

But this year, with the Legislature dealing with a huge structural deficit, the budget knife is flashing again.

Ramaswamy said that under Gov. John Kitzhaber’s proposed budget, the Agricultural Experimental Station, with its 11 branches in 15 locations — including Union County — stands to lose 19 percent of its budget, or $11.4 million.

The Forest Research Laboratory would have to cut back by 18 percent, or $1.2 million, and the Extension Service by 17 percent, or $7.4 million. The budget for the three services combined would be slashed about $20 million, or 18 percent.

Ramaswamy said those cuts do no justice for the agricultural industry, which is a huge contributor to the state’s economy.

“It’s an industry that has a farm-gate value of $4.5 billion, but it just doesn’t stop there. If you take a farm-gate-to-plate approach, there’s a 1--time multiplier. It’s a $45 billion industry,” he said.

He said the ag experimental station, the forest research lab and the Extension service are statewide endeavors that provide vital research and development services for commercial ventures.

They directly serve eight industry clusters addressed in the Oregon Business Plan, including agriculture, food processing, forestry and wood products, nurseries, tourism and hospitality, energy efficiency, green building and development, and bioscience.

Ramaswamy said reducing support for the statewide services will require elimination of programs, shuttering of branch experiment stations and Extension offices, and eliminating faculty and research positions.

Also, it will diminish the ability of OSU ag programs to attract money from federal and other external sources. Ramaswamy said that in 2010 alone, the statewide services attracted $82 million in grants, which in turn generated $195 million in economic benefits.

Those benefits, he said, included the creation of more than 2,000 family wage jobs across the state.

“In these small communities, we generate a lot of jobs,” he said.

Ramaswamy said OSU has come up with an alternative proposal to the cuts reflected in the governor’s budget. The university hopes for a $12 million “putback.”

Ramaswamy said that money, coupled with internal actions taken by the university, will retain existing branch stations and maintain critical programs in all three statewide services.

“We’re saying please add back that money, and we’ll get through the biennium fairly OK,” he said.

He said he is traveling the state, urging people to write elected representatives letters of support for the statewide services.

He is also urging people to show up for “OSU Day” in the Capitol rotunda in Salem the afternoon of April 12, and Natural Resources Day, the afternoon of April 19 in the same place.

Those events will give people a chance to meet with legislators and express concerns, Ramaswamy said.

“The leadership needs to be contacted about these things,” he said.

Tim DelCurto, the superintendent at the Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Center in Union, said after the meeting the proposed cuts threaten programs both in Union County and at a sister station in Burns.

The Union station employs two range ecologists, a fisheries and wildlife specialist, an ornithologist, an entomologist, two animal nutrition experts and an agricultural economics professor. Most of the faculty employed at the Union station teach classes at Eastern Oregon University.

Recent accomplishments out of Union, DelCurto said, include important studies on sage and juniper ecology, and impacts of grazing on ground nesting birds.

DelCurto said the proposed budget cuts would impact research and programs, to the detriment of the community.

“We have one of the best faculties you could assemble, and I’m worried about not having the infrastructure to keep it,” he said.

At the Union County Extension office in Island City, staff chair Carole Smith said the 2009 budget cuts had a negative impact on services, and problems will only get worse with more cuts.

In addition to Smith, the local Extension office employs a forestry agent, a crops and soil scientist and a family and community health specialist. A Baker City-based livestock agent splits his time between Union and Baker Counties.

The Extension service translates and adapts research for local uses to support agriculture, forest and natural resources management. It also offers health, nutrition, family and 4-H youth programs.

Smith, who doubles as Union County’s 4-H agent, said that as funding dwindles, staff increasingly is being asked to take on heavier workloads. Programs inevitably suffer.

“We’re being asked to provide more services outside the county,” she said. “It’s really at the breaking point. We’ve tried to make it look like we’re not making cuts, but we are,” she said.