When Congress considers the needs of production agriculture in the U.S., all too often the discussion focuses on forms of support that go directly to individual producers. While the form of direct support has changed through the years, direct, counter cyclical and loan deficiency payments to growers are still the largest component of federal agricultural policy. Unfortunately, that almost singular focus on payments to farmers tends to reduce the efforts by many agricultural groups to make agricultural research a core priority and to advocate aggressively for increased agricultural research funding.
In the U. S. there has always been a clear recognition that research to improve the productivity of agriculture had a significant part in making our growers the most productive in the world. The need for a well funded and organized agricultural research program has never been greater. Today growers need aggressive research programs not only to continue to improve productivity, but to address the need for improved product nutrition, increased convenience for consumers, and reduced environmental impact for product production and packaging. Unfortunately, the monetary resources to conduct agricultural research both at the state and federal level have been either flat or declining.
A Dwindling Number
The result of all this is we have fewer and fewer agricultural researchers, and in the case of a crop like potatoes where acreage is relatively small, a real shortage of PhDs and graduate students who see the opportunity in potato-specific research. During the lead-up to the 2007 Farm Bill, there was considerable discussion from USDA and the Land Grant Universities about ways to better organize the agricultural research efforts in order to more efficiently use the available funding.
Efforts to redesign the current research structure for prioritizing and conducting agricultural research are important, but no matter the magnitude of the improvements in efficiency that might be possible after the turf battles are over, we would still face the real problem, and that is clearly too little funding. To put it bluntly, there is not enough research funding for USDA-Agriculture Research Service (ARS), USDA-Cooperative State Research Education and Extension Service (CSREES), the Land Grant Universities, the National Research Initiative, and other agricultural research programs.
NPC has a history of pursuing research funding for basic, applied, and breeding potato research. For many years NPC has been successful in working with Congress, ARS, and CSREES to obtain more than $2.5 million for potato-specific research yearly. This effort requires the help of all the state potato organizations to weigh in with Congress. Each year, just maintaining the previous year’s funding becomes more difficult as federal budget pressures increase. Just maintaining existing funding levels means that as a result of general increases in costs, the actual research being done today, adjusted for inflation, has actually shrunk compared to previous years.
During the development of the Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance 2007 Farm Bill proposal the need for more specialty crop research funding emerged as a key priority. Assuming the 2007 Farm Bill is completed, the specialty crop industry will make gains in research funding. We can ill afford to continue ignoring the opportunities to fund research in order to make farming economically sustainable. Agriculture commodity groups need to take the challenges for obtaining funding seriously. This might even include the radical proposition of shifting funding from traditional farm programs to research.