Extension and land grant universities are warning that a recently discovered provision in the new farm bill will seriously damage their ability to provide needed research and emergency efforts. Integrated pest management programs are especially vulnerable.

In force for decades, the federal Smith-Lever Act has been instrumental in providing USDA funds to land grant universities and Extension. Through an amendment, the new farm bill does away with the traditional method of annual block grant funding (allocated based on each state’s agricultural production value) in favor of competitive grants.

Opponents of the move argue that competitive grants will favor large institutions and projects to the detriment of often smaller, but imperative, research and education programs.

The change is already having an effect, say several Extension/university leaders in the Mid-South, as no plan was offered to span the quick, forced transition between block and competitive grants.

“We’re in a serious bind,” says one. “We’ve just been left cold. This is not crying wolf, it’s actually happening. If it goes through, layoffs are inevitable.”

The policy switch only came to full light in September, a few weeks prior to the Oct. 1 start of the federal fiscal year. Several Extension leaders, claiming shock at the move, say it could be next spring or summer before money is released by USDA.

Many Extension and university officials are reluctant to speak about the funding shift on the record. One who isn’t: Jack Payne, director of Cooperative Extension at Iowa State University. Payne spoke with Delta Farm Press in mid-October. Among his comments:

On the funding change…

“We’re very concerned about the changes in IPM funding. It’s a very important program for Iowa State as it is for all land-grant universities. We think it was a mistake to change from capacity to competitive funding. It happened without any of us knowing about it.”

Has anyone gone back to look at how that happened?

“Yes. We’re working with the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges. I have a leadership position with it — the policy chair for the board on agriculture. As a group in NASULGC, all the land-grant universities — Mississippi State, Iowa State, Wisconsin, etc. — hire a firm, D.C.-based Cornerstone, which helps us carry legislation to Congress.”

Cornerstone “has looked into this. We’ve learned that this change was done in (agriculture committees).”

On who was behind the move…

“We were told USDA made the suggestion to the (agriculture) committee members that funding should be changed from capacity to competitive funding. They were under the impression that all of these capacity funds — known as 3d funds — already were competitive.”

Please explain what could happen if this goes through?

“When you take away the capacity funds — what used to be called formula funds — you don’t have the money or personnel available to react to emergencies. Things like soybean rust or insect problems that may hit agriculture” won’t be addressed immediately.

“With capacity funding, land-grant institutions have been able to respond immediately to agricultural emergencies. The competitive grant funds are usually restricted and don’t allow the system to react quickly. There must be some sort of base funding to react to immediate needs and that’s how the IPM funding has run for decades.”

Why this is happening now…

“It’s complicated. For the last seven or eight years, there’s been a change in philosophy in D.C. They believe that capacity funds should all be shifted to competitive. They believe you get the best research and science with competitive funding.

“The land-grant system — scientists, Extension — has done studies showing that isn’t always the case. Capacity/formula funds are very important to have on-hand with experts to reply to emergencies. There’s a fundamental disagreement between the land-grant universities and CSREES (the department within USDA that works with the land-grant universities). CSREES is a good partner, and we have a good working relationship. But this situation is upsetting many of us because there wasn’t any information provided that this (funding change) would happen.”

Have agriculture committee members who voted for, or were pushing for, this been informed what exactly is happening?

“Yes. We’ve done due diligence with members of the agriculture appropriation committees trying to get changes made in the (new farm) bill. That’s very difficult to do but discussions are going on right now trying to get that to happen.”

Do the politicians you’ve talked to understand what’s at stake here?

“Absolutely. A statement by the National IPM Extension Group was recently released. The Administrative Heads Group — composed of all the agricultural deans and some Extension directors in the country — voted to support this statement. These are people in charge of or who report to presidents or provosts in charge of the agriculture or Extension budgets.

“Then, last week, the Extension Committee on Organization and Policy, the governing committee for all the Extension Services with the Cooperative Extension System) voted to support it also.

“The statement reads: ‘The 2008 farm bill by amendment contains language that effectively eliminates the capacity for land-grant universities to maintain a stable level of expertise in programming in Extension Integrated Pest Management. The National IPM Committee strongly recommends Congress retract this amendment (subsection 7403 of the FCEA of 2008) in order to ensure a stable IPM capacity throughout the states and territories.

“‘Sustaining the state-based IPM infrastructure will fulfill USDA's mission and a national IPM roadmap will provide the benefits of IPM to all U.S. residents and will strengthen land-grants’ ability to compete for, and leverage, IPM funding from public and private sources.’”

How long do you have before this goes into effect?

“It’s my understanding that USDA will put out a Request for Proposal in mid-November. If a legislative fix is possible, it probably couldn’t happen until sometime after the November elections — probably in the spring of 2009.”

Anything else you want our readers to know about?

“Farmers and landowners that don’t know about this really need to pay attention. I hope they appreciate the research and outreach that the land-grants, Extension, colleges of agriculture mean to their success.

“Being a director in Iowa, I’m a bit prejudiced saying this, but I really believe the land-grant system built this country. The capacity that’s always been provided by USDA — matched, by the way, by state legislatures usually by two or two and a half times — is so important to the well-being of our citizens. This constant battle to reduce our capacity has really hurt our ability to respond to emergencies in agriculture and communities. That’s especially true in rural America.”

e-mail: dbennett@farmpress.com