Peanut producers today are enjoying the fruits of years of sustained and intensive research on their behalf, including high-yielding varieties that are resistant to disease, water management strategies and countless other advances that have boosted production while, in many cases, reducing inputs.
But some of this progress may come to a screeching halt if recent trends continue. Over a period of just a few weeks this spring, peanut research in Georgia took a one-two punch, as budget cuts at the national level forced the elimination of four positions at the National Peanut Research Laboratory and the state’s growers rejected an increased assessment for their commission that would have provided additional funding for research.
Add to it the fact that over the past five to seven years, peanut research and Extension positions have been lost in the state while no replacements were hired, and some see a looming crisis.
“We could be looking at a real train wreck 10 years from now,” says Don Koehler, executive director of the Georgia Peanut Commission. “To get a meaningful result from research takes a minimum of four years. Typically, it takes six to eight or 10 to 12 years.”
But the results of previous cutbacks in peanut research and Extension already are evident in Georgia, he adds. “We had significant burrower bug damage last year, and we don’t have an entomologist on staff to help with the problem.
“Also, there’s no physiologist working in peanuts, and there’s a lot about these new varieties we don’t know. Specialists who are working in peanuts are being asked to take on more commodities,” says Koehler.
This past May, Georgia’s peanut farmers rejected a proposal to increase the annual Georgia Peanut Commission assessment by $1. A total of 1,124 ballots were counted with 56.2 percent voting in favor of the increase. According to Georgia law, the Georgia Peanut Commission needs at least 25 percent of the state’s peanut farmers to vote with 66.67 percent majority, so the referendum failed.
“We were disappointed that we only received four ballots over the 25 percent needed to count the ballots,” says Koehler. “We had 75 percent of the growers who did not vote.”
Would have funded research
The proposed increase from $2 to $3 per ton of peanuts would have helped peanut farmers through additional funding opportunities for peanut research, he says.
Koehler says research is a cornerstone program of the commission and one in which it funds approximately $254,000 annually.
For 2011-2012, 27 research projects were approved from proposals submitted by the University of Georgia, USDA Agricultural Research Service, Fort Valley State and the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.
On the heels of the increased assessment rejection, it was announced that the budget at the National Peanut Research Laboratory in Dawson had been cut by approximately 20 percent, eliminating four scientific positions.
Speaking of the assessment vote, Koehler says commission members and Extension peanut specialists traveled throughout the state prior to the referendum. “We traveled to every peanut county to talk with growers about the assessment, and our Extension specialist explained that he had no travel or phone budget from the university, only salary and benefits.”
To deal with the rejection of the assessment increase and the decreased acreage this year, Koehler says his staff has been asked to look for places to cut within the current budget. While the commission’s research budget already has been approved for this year, those who received research funding are being asked to make cuts wherever possible, he says.
“Looking forward, we have to ask ourselves how we might do a better job of telling this story and getting the message to farmers. We need to improve our response from the 25 percent plus four that voted, and we won’t be satisfied until we get 100 percent.
“I heard from one of the largest growers in Georgia who had figured exactly what that extra $1 would mean to his operation, and he said it’s time we made the investment. And I heard from another grower who was viewing it as a tax increase — it’s not a tax increase.
“It’s an investment in research that will ultimately benefit the grower. Our new peanut varieties, which were largely funded through the grower dollars of the commission, made farmers enough more money to pay back every dollar ever invested in the commission in its 49-year existence.”
There’s a reaffirmation vote of the commission coming up next year, and there has to be a 12-month period between referendums, so Koehler says he isn’t sure when the board will decide to again ask for an increase in the assessment.
With a soaring federal deficit and a Congress poised to make drastic budget cuts, it’s evident that if growers want to continue research efforts, they’ll have to bear more of the responsibility themselves.
A lot of good things
“In politics today, the federal government has been portrayed to be the enemy of the people,” says Koehler. “The government is by no means above reproach, but there’s a lot that’s good about what the government does, and agricultural research is one of those things. Whenever we talk about government dollars being spent that’ll bring the greatest return and serve the most people, then we have to talk about agricultural research.”
Congress has decided that earmarks are a bad thing, he says, but the funds spent for agriculture are some of the best investments being made. “We have the cheapest food in the world, and that’s largely because of the investment we have made in agricultural research.”
While Koehler says he’s in favor of balancing the budget, he says everything should be on the table. “We need to see where we get the best return, and I’m confident agriculture is one of the better ones. Look at varieties alone. This past year, we had one of the hottest summers on record and still made good yields. The money spent on research is well invested. Agriculture is the one sector that kept our economy going during the recession.”
Few private corporations are willing to foot the bill for research that won’t show benefits until 10 years down the road, he says. And while the peanut industry might be successful in preserving its breeding programs, the reality, says Koehler, is that people are being lost, and no one else is doing the work they were doing.
As for the immediate effects of the cuts at the National Peanut Lab, programs like the Irrigator Pro irrigation scheduler could go by the wayside, says Koehler, and work might be discontinued that was aimed at telling growers how new varieties respond to irrigation.
“Irrigator Pro needs to be reworked and adapted for new varieties. We need a physiologist for peanuts. The ironic thing is that it will cost the government more money to move people from the peanut lab to other locations than to simply move the money to the peanut lab,” he says.
In addition to the most recent reductions in research funds, peanut producers also are coping with what could be one of the driest planting seasons on record, says Koehler.
“Right now, peanut product manufacturers are in the process of raising prices to reign in consumption. Peanut acres are down this year, and we can’t even get the crop planted. This could turn out to be the driest May on record. I was told by a broker that a major manufacturer was looking at raising prices by 23 percent to quiet consumption.”