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Column: LSU AgCenter trying not to ‘eat its seed corn’

Most of us can walk into our neighborhood grocery store and see a dazzling array of foods and beverages. The same can be said for clothing stores with rack after rack of designer dresses and $500 pairs of denim jeans.

So why aren’t taxpayers more willing to provide funding for the agricultural research that makes so much of that possible? Paul Coreil, vice chancellor of the LSU AgCenter, was trying to make sense of that question during remarks at the Northeast Research Station Field Day on June 14.

“We struggle so much every year to keep these experiment stations and Extension agents working,” said Coreil, who also serves as director of the Louisiana Cooperative Extension Service. “And every year we have to go back to the Legislature and ask for a reprieve from budget cuts.

“I keep hoping that one of these years we don’t have to do that.”

The LSU AgCenter has suffered from budget woes for a number of years. In the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, however, the AgCenter took the unusual step of asking the LSU Board of Supervisors to declare it to be in a financial emergency.

The declaration, which was granted in March, allows the AgCenter to evaluate its budget and lay off tenured faculty members, if needed, to stop the bleeding at the institution, which oversees 20 research stations and parish Extension offices in the state.

“The seeking of a declaration of a financial emergency is not something that institutions of higher education like or even want to do,” said Chancellor Bill Richardson, who also spoke at the Northeast Research Station Field Day.

“What’s been happening is that as we’ve had to deal with budget deficits and certain things increasing dramatically such as health insurance costs, we’ve had to cannibalize ourselves to balance our budget while the other institutions of higher learning have been able to raise tuition.”

Unlike other institutions in the LSU System, the AgCenter receives 63 percent of its budget from state funds. The LSU A&M campus in Baton Rouge receives only 34 percent of its budget from state funds. “Long-term solutions must be found,” Richardson says.

The AgCenter has eliminated nearly 300 positions and is downsizing such areas as dairy, reflecting the declining dairy industry in the state. Richardson said no research stations or parish Extension offices would be closed during the declaration of emergency, which begins July 1.

Researchers and Extension specialists have continued to work with farmers on salt-contaminated rice fields, herbicide-resistant weeds and Asian soybean rust, which was first discovered in the United States by an AgCenter scientist. Researchers determined that 800 to 900 parts per million was the cutoff for planting salt-contaminated rice fields.

AgCenter leaders acknowledge more must be done. Lamenting the “lack of understanding” of agriculture’s value, especially in areas such as northeast Louisiana, Coreil said, “We’ve got to make sure we communicate how important agriculture is to the future of the state.”

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