Asked about the role of research in keeping disease and pests at bay while providing food security, Mazourek says too many have a rosy view about how quickly issues can be tackled.

“We’ve assembled the team to tackle the problems that exist. If you dissolve the team, the problems don’t just go away.

“Say you shut things down just for a year. Well, diseases will be a year ahead when we come back to research. The diseases will gain an advantage.

“In our case, we have disease–resistant genetic material that’s one generation away from being in growers’ hands in a big way. It’s agonizingly close to release and we’re being tripped an inch from the finish line in some cases.

“Long-term, when the funding comes back, how do you keep quality people with expertise?  Will I have to start from scratch to find such quality?”

What about commodity groups and check-offs? Are they filling the gap at all?

“I wish we got some of that funding. There is some industry support for research but, otherwise, it’s one year to the next grant proposals.

“Working on what’s seen as minor crops, we used to get state funding. That’s almost all gone, now, especially in New York where we had a big hit in the stock market (in 2008).”

Cornell had a much better, more conservative strategy with investments than others. “They’ve helped us weather the storm the best they can. It hasn’t been good but it could have been much worse so the administration should get credit.”

Some non-profit groups have been “very good advocates for us. The last farm bill, there was a lot of push to get some programs for specialty crops. The public was interested in helping fruits and vegetables.”

Mazourek returns to the need for the public to understand what’s at stake.

“What we’ve come to realize is the general public can’t really relate to why there should be investment in research for farmers when their numbers are shrinking. It’s a logic that’s difficult to overcome: If one percent of the population is farmers, why should 99 percent of the population have their taxes go to support them?

“A newer development is we’ve been asked to write impact statements. We’re scrambling to show how our work affects the consumer. Hopefully that will help the public care about agricultural research being shut down.

“We have to get our stories out and move from behind the scenes to the front. It’s difficult because there’s a lot of noise competing for attention.”

Luckily, much of what the Cornell team does fits in with current food trends.

“People want local, regional, sustainable food systems. As a vegetable breeder, that’s helping us raise awareness. People are slowly beginning to understand that a lot of what we’re developing is showing up in seed catalogs, in the display racks at the local store.”

As for expectations for future research funding, Mazourek isn’t holding his breath.

“We’d hoped some of the lobbying efforts would work and funding would be restored. We hoped the course of events would be different.

“Now, we hope for magic – that something will happen during discussions in D.C. and a light will come on. But a lot of us are prepped for having a year off from being able to pursue funding. Realistically, it seems that 2013 will be ‘the year of no funding.’

Mazourek grew up on a local farm and is perfectly happy having dirt under his nails. “I know the hard work and hours farmers put in, the importance of their work. One of the things I’m doing at Cornell is trying to help make their lives easier. We develop seeds that works well for organic growers locally. That helps make the agricultural communities in a regional sense more successful and economically viable.

“The last grant we got looks at all the warming trends in the Northeast. We know diseases and insects are moving in, overwintering, spreading due to different production practices. All the irrigation we’re using is pulling disease out of the ponds. The flooding we had moved water-borne pathogens to many new farms.”

In many cases, Mazourek has the seeds that can help in those situations. Or, the solution is tantalizingly close. “We have the answers and want to provide them. Instead, we’re being forced to spit the bit at the finish line.”

 

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