In recent years, university agricultural research funding has too often been short. The new reality for researchers and administrators is a near-constant scramble to find ways to keep research programs afloat.

The March 1 sequester, says Michael Mazourek, further jeopardizes the gains made in research programs. Mazourek,an assistant professor in Cornell University’s Department of Plant Breeding and Genetics, tells a story that he insists could be told by agriculture professors and researchers across the country.  

“I’m a vegetable breeder and have new varieties that end up in seed catalogs. We also do the initial ‘rough draft’ of germ plasm that goes to the seed companies and they take that to the finished cultivar.  In addition, we do a lot of genome metabolite nutrition research.

“All that requires a lot of trials on grower farms to ensure that the things we develop actually works in the field. If it doesn’t work on the farm, it just wastes everyone’s time.”

Unfortunately, in terms of public perceptions, agricultural research has a high hill to climb.

“Many people have the image of a faculty member, a professor, sitting in a big chair, reading dusty books from the library while smoking a pipe with heels up. Of course, that’s not what we’re doing.

“To get everything done, I’ve invested a lot in recruiting a dedicated staff. They’re key to everything we do. So, I spend a lot of time trying to make payroll, keep enough grants coming in to fund the research and keep momentum going.”

Developing a new vegetable is often a multi-year process. That requires a team that’s in it for the long haul and funding to keep it in place.

“Getting a grant is very tough. Often, you’re looking at a 1 or 2 percent success rate. That means instead of sitting with pipe in hand and my feet up, I spend time writing grant application after grant application, bringing the best arguments I can trying to persuade someone to fund us. Every once in a while we’re lucky enough to get that funding.”

One grant the Cornell team is part of is being led by Oregon State University. “It’s one of the big OREI (Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative) USDA grants that involved farmers, getting new varieties. We have a lot that’s almost ready to release – we just need to increase seed.

“That grant was set to renew this year and, right now, I should be writing the renewal request. And actually, the budget category for the grant was increased because the whole program has been so successful for the USDA. But with the sequestration, as far as I can tell, we have a big budget but there’s no money allocated. That means they’re not accepting renewal applications.”

Will Mazourek be forced to furlough team members?

“In our case, we were lucky enough to have a rainy day fund. However, we’ve been dipping into it so much there’s not much left. We can see the bottom of the barrel.

“I hear the same thing from other researchers, regardless of region.”

Agricultural research, Mazourek points out, provides stability to the markets. It’s also the place where people are trained in agricultural disciplines, the place where the next generation of specialists and consultants come from.

And it’s very hard to absorb the lack of funding.

“Others have it worse than I do, though. The potato breeders are in a special bind. Every year they plant tubers in the ground, which will last only a year if they aren’t regenerated. Without proper funding to plant those and, at a minimum, harvest them to storage for next year, all their work will be for naught. Decades and decades of progress could just end.

“Think about the research on vineyards and orchards. You can’t just stop hiring someone to irrigate the crops.

“The situation for vegetable breeders like me is a bit milder. We can put seeds in the fridge and, hopefully, weather the storm.”