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Research shortfalls delaying farm production information

Research shortfalls delaying farm production information

Land-grant universities historically provide research-proven production data for crops, often delivered by Extension specialists and county agents, but frequently by industry representatives.

This information is packaged in a number of ways, but has been a cornerstone for steadily increasing yields and overall farm production over the past century.

A dramatic increase in technological opportunities and changes in production practices across a broad range of crops has stretched the ability of land-grant researchers to keep pace in the past few years.

Since the 2008 worldwide recession, dramatic budget cuts have further eliminated both people and programs, further stressing the system’s ability to keep up with the needs of an ever-changing agriculture industry.

A panel made up of deans of agriculture in the Southeast made a unified and passionate plea for help at the recent Southern Peanut Growers Association meeting in Panama City Beach, Fla.

Deans from Auburn University, University of Florida, University of Georgia and Mississippi State University each cited similar challenges facing land-grant Agriculture programs in the future.

Agriculture deans, agricultural experiment station directors and cooperative Extension directors have been telling politicians and heads of other revenue generating organizations for years that the sky is clearly going to fall, unless they find more funds for agricultural teaching, research and Extension.

In the past those may have been hollow warnings based on a need to build an academic empire. Now, the proverbial sky may really be about to fall on agriculture programs in land-grant institutions across America.

At the same meeting in Florida, a panel of peanut researchers and Extension leaders talked about production problems facing peanut growers this year.

Veteran peanut scientists like Jay Chapin, recently retired from Clemson and John Beasley at the University of Georgia, noted a lack of up-to-date research-proven information on this or that area of peanut production.

The first, and most prominent, result of the sky falling on ag programs in land-grant colleges is dire shortages of information available for commercial farmers to use in growing crops.

Basic production information is still there — things like variety performance and soil nutrient analysis. Specific data about a new variety, how a new corn hybrid reacts to different irrigation rates, for example, is hard to find.

In the peanut industry, hot and dry harvest time weather the past couple of years has produced a proliferation of burrower bugs.

Clemson Peanut Specialist Jay Chapin conducted some of the last research done of these yield busting insects.

“Up to date information on burrower bugs is hard to find, because we haven’t had the resources to continue doing research on these insects and how they affect modern varieties and modern production practices,” Chapin says.

David Adams, former University of Georgia entomologist echoes Chapin’s concerns about limited information available to farmers.

Spread too thin

He notes the number of people working on peanuts has diminished in the past few years and despite the hard work of those who remain, they are simply spread too thin to keep up with all the potential production problems.

University of Georgia Peanut Agronomist John Beasley, also speaking at the peanut meeting in Panama City Beach, had the courage to stand up before his dean and deans of other land-grant colleges and tell it like it really is for peanut researchers and Extension specialists.

Beasley, to paraphrase, said peanut researchers are spread too thin to work within state lines. He noted a definite allegiance to the University of Georgia for his professional livelihood, but stressed a willingness to work with peanut growers, regardless of their geographic location, when they need help growing peanuts.

Peanuts, in the overall scope of things, is a secondary crop in the Southeast, but an economic giant in pockets of Alabama, Georgia, Florida, the Carolinas and Virginia. Without the kind of non-traditional help that Beasley offered, even the smaller crops can’t keep pace with the burgeoning demand for information.

New varieties of peanuts have come to the market place in recent years, but research-proven production information is often based on how Florunner and other older varieties responded to various treatments. How these new varieties perform under specific circumstances — well who knows?

Peanuts are a microcosm of the overall lack of research-proven information available for growers. Even King Cotton, with the potential for a record crop this year, has some very prominent holes in modern production information.

For example, a decade or so ago planting cotton much into May was a well-documented recipe for yield and quality loss. Modern varieties don’t react the same to stress, these varieties are improved — that’s why they are on the market and replacing older, less production ones.

With these new varieties, late planting dates may be good or may be bad. It’s hard to tell because there isn’t any modern data, based on years of scientific research, to back up these guesses.

Cotton growers in South Carolina and parts of southeast North Carolina have seen a relatively new occurrence this year. Bolls are splitting, most contend, from prolonged early season heat and drought. Once these stressed plants get water, they simply try to grow too fast, splitting the boll.

“I’m sure the problem has been around, but I’ve been growing cotton all my adult life, and I’ve never seen it,” says St. Mathews, S.C. grower Kent Wannamaker.

He says boll split hasn’t been a widespread problem in his cotton this year, but is concerned boll split may be another environment/variety-related problem about which growers don’t have much information to use.

Fortunately for the South Carolina grower, Clemson University cotton specialist Mike Jones likely knows more about boll split problems than anyone in the Cotton Belt. Unfortunately, Jones, like most land-grant researchers covers a wide gamut of production issues and finding resources to cover them all is getting tougher each year.

Good reason for problem

There’s a good reason there isn’t ample research to support modern cotton production. Take a look at the number of people working on cotton 10-12 years ago at land-grant universities, compared to now. 

“A good rule of thumb is that it takes 8-10 years to get well-validated research results to commercial agriculture. We are now seeing the negative results of cutting back research programs a decade or more ago.” He says

Seed companies, crop protection companies, well-trained crop consultants and farm equipment manufacturers do their best to provide as much information as they can about their products to growers.

Despite their best of intentions to help growers, these companies are driven by profit and their research and development budgets often are stretched every bit as thin as those of ag programs in land-grant universities.

Auburn University Dean Bill Batchelor says when he began his academic career as a student in ag engineering at the University of Georgia, the world produced more food than it needed. Now, he says we are rapidly reaching the point of not being able to produce enough food for the world.

“A typical career for an agricultural scientist at a land-grant university is 30-35 years, or about the same time I’ve been a student, then faculty member.

“Over the next 30-35 years, the world will move from 6.8 billion people to nine billion people. More than 70 percent of people worldwide will live in cities over the next 30-40 years,” he says.

“In 2010 — just one year — a million people a day moved from rural parts of the world into cities. All these people will look to agriculture for food,” he adds.

“At a time when the world needs more and more food each year, reductions in agriculture research, teaching and Extension funds makes it harder and harder for us to provide the information growers need to increase food production,” Batchelor says.

Each of the deans speaking at the peanut meeting in Florida told similar tales of trying to balance a broad-based basic research program geared to finding and solving long-term agricultural challenges, with funding a similarly broad-based applied research program geared to providing immediate information to solve ongoing production challenges.

Cutting the basic research program back stymies the ability to compete for high dollar research grants and to provide the building blocks needed to solve ongoing everyday production problems of the future. Cutting back applied programs leaves an immediate lack of information on things like burrower bugs in peanuts and split bolls in cotton.

The sad reality is that changing the direction in which agriculture programs at land-grant universities is heading will almost certainly have to happen at the grass roots level.

Even sadder is that it will likely take catastrophic shortages to change the way we produce food, much like it took catastrophic economic losses to change our banking system.

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