Budget cuts squeeze ag programs

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While agriculture continues to be a major contributor to Mississippi’s economy, declining state revenues have put the squeeze on university Extension/outreach programs and operations of key state agricultural agencies, leaders said at the annual conference of Mississippi Women in Agriculture.

“Our College of Agriculture and Life Sciences offers many agriculture-related specialties, with excellent opportunities for women,” said Melissa Mixon, vice president for agriculture, forestry, and veterinary medicine at Mississippi State University.

“The Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station addresses the needs of our farmers on a local basis, working proactively and reactively with issues facing producers.

“Unfortunately, resources devoted to outreach for land grant universities are continually declining.”

In January 2009, Mixon notes, institutions of higher learning were faced with a 5 percent budget cut at the state level — equivalent to 10 percent, since it came in the middle of the fiscal year.

“Our researchers, professors, and Extension staff really tightened their belts and we were able to make adjustments and go forward with our programs.

“Then, in the spring, we were told to prepare for a 25 percent cut, which would have been devastating. Our president, Mark Keenum, and many of our strong supporters who understand the importance of agriculture to our state worked diligently to make legislators aware that funding for agriculture is a good investment — for every $1 the state provides for agriculture programs, we’re able to secure $1.50 to $2 from other sources.”

As a result, the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2009, started with a level budget, Mixon notes, “but state revenues continued declining and we knew more cuts were coming.

“Currently, we’re working with an 8 percent cut. Many in Extension are doing double, triple duty — they’re taken on these added responsibilities to help get us through this rough spot and to maintain a strong organization.

“We’re looking internally at how we can be more efficient, but we still believe a county-based organization is the best way to meet the needs of our state’s agricultural community. We want to not only be sure we can meet these needs during this crisis, but that we’ll be positioned to move forward when the economy improves.”

It’s important, Mixon says to “let your legislators know your concerns — direct voter input always resonates with them.”

Dalton McAfee, administrator of Cooperative Extension programs at Alcorn State University, says, “We’ve felt the impact of 42 percent budget cuts 2001-2007. We’ve lost our livestock on campus, cut back on the number of field days, restructured our staff, and reduced travel.

“But because federal funding requires matching at certain levels, these state cuts could endanger our federal funds. We’ve asked the legislature to restore our budget to 2001 levels.”

McAfee says ASU’s goal “is to move agriculture to another level. While continuing traditional agricultural education programs of importance to our state, we’ve added programs such as a masters in biotechnology.

“Our major thrust is working with the state’s small farmers, including facilitating loans to support their operations and programs to provide training in computer skills, risk management, and other business skills.

“We’re assisting these small producers with local markets and processing — a $1.2 million processing facility is now in operation at Marks, Miss. — as well as value-added products. A pilot development center is nearly completion for food products, and we’re involved in advice and assistance for a number of alternative agricultural enterprises.

“Our researchers have developed the first disease resistant transgenic sweet potato line, several soy food products, and are working with several medicinal herbs — a huge market nationally,” McAfee says.

“Almost everything we hear about our state’s financial condition is bad,” says John Gordon Campbell, deputy director, Bureau of Plant Industry, Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce.

“We’re operating with an 8 percent cut this year and are told we may face another 10 percent for the fiscal year starting July 1. It will be extremely tough to absorb that kind of cut, and we’re pushing hard to get a full appropriation from the legislature.

“Our department, with all its programs to protect the public health, such as meat inspection, touches every citizen, and we do it with a staff of only about 200. With the state budget crisis, we’ve taken steps to streamline our agency, to do more work with fewer people, but we’re to the point now there’s not much room left for cuts.”

Still Campbell says, “We Mississippians are very resilient, and I’m confident we’ll come through this crisis with a continuing strong agriculture.”

e-mail: hbrandon@farmpress.com

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