Local funding for experiment station branches in keeping with 'shared sacrifice' tradition

East Oregonion
July 7, 2010
Sonny Ramaswamy

In our efforts to maintain critical services while meeting extraordinarily challenging budget demands, state of Oregon agency leaders, myself included, face tough choices. As dean of Oregon State University's College of Agricultural Sciences, I've spent many hours looking at costs and opportunities within those choices, mindful of the importance of the communities and constituents we serve and their importance, in turn, both to this state and areas well beyond our borders.

The Oregon Agricultural Experiment Station, for which I am responsible, offers a potent illustration of those challenges. Serving 15 locations around the state, the experiment station has sustained budget cuts of almost $10 million since December 2008. In the current biennium, the Governor's recently announced across-the-board cuts amount to $2.6 million for the experiment station. In the 2011-13 biennium, we have been asked to plan for likely additional reductions of between 15 and 25 percent, or $9.3 to $15.5 million.

Whether the experiment station's share of those budget reductions is fair, given the significance of the agricultural commerce that it helps make possible, is beside the point. The money is simply not there. Oregon's most recent, additional $577 million shortfall for this biennium leaves lawmakers and agency managers little choice but to shrink the size of publicly funded services to a size that the state can afford.

There are essentially two basic approaches to addressing this challenge for the experiment station: Close one or more branches and use those savings to cushion the cuts elsewhere, or identify ways to distribute the burden among these operations while preserving as many critical services as possible. Though the latter, quite frankly, is the more difficult of those options, it's the one I've chosen. Here's why.

Oregon is a state with many different soils, climate zones and agricultural products. The 11 branch stations at 15 locations were created in response to that diversity of unique agro-climatic or economic zones, and were expected to create value through research that served unique needs - an expectation upon which the stations have delivered, time and again. Originally, Oregonians chose to pay for this research almost entirely from state tax monies, but that support has declined dramatically over the years to today's historic low as a percentage of overall funding.

In a series of town hall-style meetings earlier this year with stakeholders of every station, I consistently heard powerful testimony on the importance of each and every branch station - testimony that reinforced what we already know of the value each operation provides for the communities it serves by way of the jobs and economic impact it helps make possible.

The Columbia Basin Agricultural Research Center in Pendleton provides one of many great examples of value and impact. Station Superintendent Steve Petrie leads a program of testing wheat cultivars for the Columbia Plateau, focusing on identifying wheat varieties that have more durable disease resistance, greater yield potential, enhanced milling and baking qualities, characteristics that reduce soil erosion and reduced dependence on pesticides. Estimated net annual benefits of this research alone exceed $3 million, and it is one of many projects at the Columbia Basin Center.

In those same town hall conversations, I introduced the possibility of additional local support being identified to help fund base operations. This option offers stakeholders a window of opportunity to ensure continuity of research benefitting their industry/ies. Had I arbitrarily chosen to close this branch or that, they would have had no such opportunity. And, as was pointed out in the East Oregonian's June 25 editorial, some local stakeholders already have stepped up with additional support, including the creation of an endowment nearly two decades ago at the Columbia Basin Agricultural Research Center's Moro station in Sherman County.

Many of the state's forward-looking agricultural and natural resource enterprises - such as those that produce wheat, potatoes and tree fruits - already fund research projects focused on their own specific needs. But those projects can't be carried out if support evaporates for the stations' base operating budgets. Thus, additional support for base budgets is essential.

These are hard and unavoidable truths. Even so, addressing them with a cold fiscal calculus that only takes into account the bottom line might be seen by some as more "managerial," but would be a departure from the tradition of shared sacrifice that has seen Oregon through so many tough times. It can help us humanely weather this one, as well.

Experiment stations deliver value by addressing local needs, and I hope you join me in the belief and expectation that local financial support can be identified to help maintain them. That may be an optimistic approach, but it is one that our values and traditions demand that we test before any others.

If sufficient local support is not forthcoming, that will be one factor among several in determining which stations may be closed. Others include future overall state funding for the Statewide Public Services (Experiment Station, OSU Extension and OSU Forest Research Laboratory), the value and size of industries and local economies being supported, opportunities to partner with Extension, the potential to combine research with another station in Oregon or to partner across state lines, and any unique strategic opportunities the location affords.

Should it become evident that we simply have insufficient funds to operate all of the stations effectively, I will make the necessary decisions.

For the sake of the individuals, families, communities and industries we serve, I will do everything in my power to prevent that outcome.

Sonny Ramaswamy is dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences at Oregon State University.