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By Holly Fesperman LeeSalisbury Post
Piedmont Research Station and others like it around the state face an uncertain future.
A section of the State Senate’s budget proposal calls for a management and ownership transfer that would affect all of North Carolina’s 18 research stations.
Currently the stations operate through a long-standing partnership between the N.C. Department of Agriculture and N.C. State University.
The Senate proposal would dissolve that partnership and N.C. State would assume sole station ownership and management.
The budget bill calls for the state to “consolidate and downsize” agricultural research stations to make them operate more efficiently and reduce administrative costs beginning with the 2008-2009 fiscal year.
Steve Leath, director of N.C. State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences researched the issue for the Senate and told the Asheville Citizen-Times the transfer could save $2 million a year.
“Right now … we’re running two personnel systems, two purchasing systems and two completely parallel structures,” Leath said in a Citizen-Times article earlier this month.
Retired Piedmont Research Station Superintendent Raymond Coltrain says he doesn’t think the proposal is such a good idea.
“Currently, funding for the operations of the agricultural research program comes through both organizations and if you eliminate one of those organizations then priorities could be different,” Coltrain said. “That could … negatively affect the amount of funding and support that is available for the operations of the research stations.”
The Piedmont Research station on Sherrills Ford Road has five units ó Dairy, Poultry, Field Crops, Horticulture Crops and Support ó that all work to determine the best practices for North Carolina farmers.
Right now, the station is studying how to extend the growing season for small fruits like raspberries, strawberries and blueberries.
The station also makes its own biodiesel fuel from used cooking oil to power several work trucks.
Coltrain pointed to the crippling freeze the county experienced around Easter, saying the research station was able to educate Rowan County farmers on how to better manage their crops after the harsh weather.
“Suppose we didn’t have the funding. … The information couldn’t have been obtained and conveyed to the farmers,” he said.
Coltrain explained that since N.C. State scientists currently head all the research projects, the type of research done at the stations shouldn’t change.
“But the availability of resources, equipment, facilities, people ó all those things could be affected,” Coltrain said.
Language in the proposal suggests that some of the research stations may have to close their doors.
As lead agency for the management of all the state’s agricultural research farms, the bill says, N.C. State will:
– Consolidate and downsize the agricultural research stations and research farms to make them operate more efficiently and to reduce the administrative costs beginning with the 2008-2009 fiscal year.
– Evaluate each agricultural research station and research farm to determine which of the stations or farms should be retained by the state and which are non-critical and should be divested by the state.Coltrain said the proposed changes may not be all bad, but “when you limit the number of organizations that support a program you have a greater possibility of negatively affecting that program.”
In a letter addressed to “friends of agriculture,” N.C. Commissioner of Agriculture Steve Troxler makes his position on the issue clear.
“First, I am opposed to this proposal. Second, and perhaps most importantly, you should know that my opposition is based entirely on my conviction that the transfer of the Research Stations Division would be contrary to the best interests of North Carolina’s number one industry ó agriculture and agribusiness,” Troxler wrote.
“To me, this is not a turf war nor should it be a political issue. I have no desire to be at odds with my alma mater on any issue. … Nonetheless, I feel that I have both a statutory duty and a moral obligation to explain why I believe the transfer of the Research Stations Division would be a grave mistake,” Troxler’s letter continues.
Troxler writes that language in the Senate proposal does not merely suggest that N.C. State eliminate some research stations, “It requires such elimination.”
According to Troxler, the Board of Governors of the University of North Carolina System will determine how any funds from research sales will be used.
“The language does not require that the University consult farmers, the Department of agriculture, or the General Assembly on how funds will be used,” Troxler wrote.And while Leath, the director of N.C. State’s agriculture college, sees the proposal as saving the state $2 million in the 2008-2009 fiscal year, Troxler sees it as cutting funding for agriculture by that amount.
“It seems to me that the notion of looting the research farms to fund agricultural research is a bit like trying to have your cake and eat it too,” Troxler wrote. “A cut to the research stations budget means at least two things. Number one, some research which could benefit the state’s farming community will be eliminated. Number two, many of the individuals employed on the research stations will soon be looking for work.”
Troxler also expresses concern in the letter that the agricultural community wasn’t given an opportunity to speak on the proposal.
“I regret that for two reasons. First, the Department and the University have successfully managed the research stations since 1938. I believe that a decision to end that relationship should be made only after careful, open discussion. Second, I believe the agricultural community in North Carolina … truly knows what is best for agriculture in this state and their voices should be heard before a decision of this magnitude is made,” he wrote.
Troxler and Coltrain urge citizens to call their state representatives and state senators to express concerns about the issue and ask for help.
“The average citizens have a very vested interest and dependence on this as well, even though they feel they may not ó but they all like to eat at least three times a day,” Coltrain said.
The bill is currently awaiting action in the N.C. House. To view the entire bill visit www.ncleg.net and search for House Bill 1473.
Legislators for Rowan County are N.C. Sen. Andrew Brock, who can be contacted in Raleigh at 919-715-0690 or andrewb@ncleg.net; N.C. Rep. Lorene Coates, at 919-733-5784 or lorenec@ncleg.net; and N.C. Rep. Fred Steen, at 919-733-5881 or fredst@ncleg.net.
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Contact Holly Lee at 704-797-4683 or hlee@salisburypost.com.

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