Published 12:00 am Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The last time the General Assembly started tinkering with North Carolina’s 18 research stations, a vigorous campaign by farmers and local politicians helped head off draconian cuts that might have shut down the facility on Sherrill’s Ford Road. While it sustained some sharp budget and personnel reductions, the Piedmont Research Station survived.
Now, five years after that close shave, Rowan County’s state representatives and local government leaders should be just as wary regarding a proposal that would dissolve the longtime partnership between the N.C. Department of Agriculture and N.C. State that has sustained the research stations for many years. In the rubric of government, this comes under the heading of “consolidating and downsizing,” with the potential to save $2 million a year by giving N.C. State sole control of the Research Stations Division. Increased efficiency is a good thing, whether in farming or state government. But considering how important research is to the $68 billion agribusiness industry in North Carolina, budget writers should proceed with caution in revamping a program that has been of great benefit to the state’s farmers ó and, it follows, to the state’s consumers and its overall economy, as well.
Although the reorganization is couched as a way to reduce structural redundancies between the Agriculture Department and N.C. State, some of those who’ve been closely connected with the Piedmont Research Station in Rowan County have serious reservations. They fear that the bureaucratic shuffling will reduce research and operational funding for the 18 research stations, cost local jobs and narrow the stations’ support within state government by severing an important connection with the Agriculture Department. Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler terms the proposal a “grave mistake” and thinks it could eventually result in the closure of some research stations. Another concern is that giving sole control to an academic entity could dilute the voice of the farming community in future decisions involving the research stations’ mission.
As their name implies, these facilities concentrate on using modern research to make farming more efficient, productive and profitable. Research is central to their mission, and the partnership with N.C. State, as well as an affiliation with N.C. AT&T, is essential to their work. But they’re different from other research facilities in that they’re strongly rooted in the soil of local communities, as well as in the state’s agricultural history. In places like Rowan County, the research stations are more than lines in a budget bill. They’re living laboratories that not only help sustain our area’s farmers but also teach school children that green things don’t naturally grow on grocery shelves. The stations have one foot in the halls of academia, but the other is solidly planted in the field. That’s a good balance, and it’s one that should be preserved.