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Sub-tropical research center falls victim to federal budget woes

USDA’s only subtropical agriculture research center now sits dormant on the South Texas prairie. USDA personnel are confirming that the Weslaco Center is one of the 259 USDA offices and facilities that will be closed this summer. Suspension of research and the closing of the Weslaco Center have garnered harsh criticism from local supporters.  

Like a fallen fort on America’s great frontier, USDA’s only subtropical agriculture research center now sits dormant on the South Texas prairie, a sleeping giant on the Texas-Mexico border, a condemned prisoner waiting on the executioner’s arrival, its rich history and noble cause lost in a federal budget reorganization and controversial policy decision that some say will put U.S. agriculture at risk from foreign invasive pest species and diseases that could ultimately threaten U.S. agriculture and food safety.

Known for such pioneering work as boll weevil eradication in cotton, fever tick eradication in cattle, control and eradication of invading tropical fruit flies, citrus greening and zebra chip research, the USDA-ARS Kika de la Garza Research Center in Weslaco is the only facility on the U.S. mainland that researches quarantine issues related to tropical pests, and one of only four that does work on honey bees.

In addition, the Center is instrumental in the development of biofuels from sugar, hot water dips for importation of certain produce products and for setting international standards for radiation and quarantine of agriculture plants and products.

While the official notice of closure is expected in a list scheduled for release later this month, USDA personnel are confirming that the Weslaco Center is one of the 259 USDA offices and facilities that will be closed this summer as part of a plan known as the “Blueprint for Stronger Service," a budgetary reorganization designed to trim some $150 million from the agency’s budget.

Overall, since 2010, Congress has reduced USDA discretionary spending by nearly 12 percent, or more than $3 billion. Included in the ‘Blueprint Plan’ is the reorganization or closing of facilities and programs operated by the Farm Service Agency, Rural Development, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the Agricultural Research Service and the Food and Nutrition Service.

“All research activity has stopped and we have already furloughed some 60 employees from the Center,” says USDA’s Dr. Robert Mangan, acting director at the Weslaco Center for the past three years. “We are currently awaiting final reassignments for our research staff and are expecting to permanently close the doors by June.”

Mangan says ten research service facilities are scheduled for closing but notes the Weslaco Center is larger and of broader scope than the other nine centers combined. Located in the middle of a fruit fly eradication zone, the Center is the only ARS research unit with secure quarantine facilities for fruit flies.

“The Lower Rio Grande Valley is one of the most dynamic agricultural systems in the United States, undergoing constant changes in local crop diversity as well as the flow of imported products from other countries. The scientists at the ARS Kika de la Garza Subtropical Research Center have historically been able to respond quickly and effectively to the pest problems associated with these conditions. Without the efforts of the Center’s scientists, the risk of pest invasion will be greatly increased,” Mangan adds.

The Center is located 12 miles from the largest port of entry for commercial and contraband mangos, citrus, guavas and avocados, and the second largest port for produce originating outside the U.S.

Criticism from supporters

Suspension of research and the closing of the Weslaco Center have garnered harsh criticism from local supporters.

“The Weslaco Center is unique in that it's the only USDA facility conducting research on subtropical issues and the only USDA research center on the border. It’s the first line of defense against pests and diseases from across the border that could devastate local crops and adversely affect U.S. agriculture from coast-to-coast,” says Ray Prewett, president of Texas Citrus Mutual and officer of the Texas Vegetable Association in Mission, Texas.

Dr. Webb Wallace, executive director of the Cotton & Grain Producers of the Lower Rio Grande Valley, agrees.

“We have experienced a period of success fighting boll weevil in U.S. cotton, but recent setbacks in Mexico’s boll weevil eradication program now threatens our well being on this side of the border, and the (Weslaco) SARC has provided a buffer between  problems like this that could spill over,” he says.

Mangan says the fate of the Center’s physical facilities are uncertain and a decision on whether the facilities will be sold or used for other purposes is unclear, but he suggests that if closing the facility is for the purpose of reducing USDA’s annual personnel budget as proposed in the blueprint, then the move to closure may not yield the desired results.

“The idea was to impose hiring controls and early separation programs for senior staff, meaning those with an adequate number of years of service who might opt for retirement, thereby reducing USDA’s overall budget. But at least in the case of the Weslaco Center, most of our senior researchers have expressed a willingness to accept reassignment to other USDA facilities. I think this may be a surprise to many who favored this blueprint for a stronger service,” Mangan said.

While many of the programs at the Weslaco Center will be moved to other locations and agencies, supporters of the Center say the inability to react quickly to border problems associated with U.S. agriculture could prove costly in the long run. In addition to providing subtropical research, Center personnel often advised and provided support to other agencies, such as the Texas Agriculture Department and Mexico’s INIFAP regional agriculture inspection and research center.

Mangan says Mexican agriculture inspectors have often requested a visit from USDA personnel to advise them on issues of pest and disease identification and on issues related to quarantine.

“It was just a quick drive across the border to offer these types of peripheral services, which often resulted in preventing a potential problem reaching our border. Once the Center closes, these types of services will no longer be available,” he warns.

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