November 3, 2009
From Union, we headed south on Interstate-84 to our Malheur station in Ontario, which sits right on the Oregon-Idaho border. We knew we had arrived, because of the intense aroma of onions in the air – to me an appetizing smell, and the smell of money, when the market for onions is good. The area is home to a large number of people of Japanese heritage, and over a dinner of mafa chicken and beverages at a Japanese restaurant, we discussed all of the sights we had seen the previous few days, and what lay ahead. Our faculty and staff at the Malheur station address issues in the area related to production of onions, potatoes, and sugar beets, along with alternative crops that appear to be promising for this area, such as soybeans, asparagus, native wildflower for seed, including those that have medicinal and anti-cancer properties, poplar, and teff (an east African cereal crop that is used to make injera, the pancake like bread in Ethiopian food).
We had a wonderful conversation with Rep. Cliff Bentz, another tremendously thoughtful supporter of education and our research and Extension efforts. We discussed the investments needed for education and research, and the ever-decreasing state investments, which are beginning to have a significant impact on our college’s ability to be preeminent. A “slow death by the thousand cuts” as a result of the budget cuts is hampering us. I pointed out that it is unfortunate we pit K-12 versus higher education; in this very competitive era, what we need is to focus on is K-20 education, and for the state to look at education and research as being what will keep Oregon ahead of the pack. With representatives like Greg Smith and Cliff Bentz, I think support of our educational and research efforts is in good hands. I only hope the constituents agree and support their efforts. If the conversations I had with our stakeholders who serve as advisors to the station is any indication, I think Rep. Bentz’s efforts and those of our station faculty and staff are not unappreciated.
The drive east from Ontario to our experiment station at Burns brought us through vistas very different from what we had seen over the previous few days – this is rolling, range country, scrubby and sage brush covered, with the occasional Piñon juniper, which has become a significant, invasive problem in this section of the state. Much of the land here is owned by the Federal government. Over a lunch of thick, juicy steaks at the home of the Doverspikes, Susan and Mark, in Burns, I had a chance to discuss with some cattle ranchers the significant challenges our college faces as a result of the economic downturn and the need to transform our structure into a smaller, state-supported footprint. They appreciated my thoughts and vision for our college; their expectations are that it is critical, as we restructure ourselves, that we cannot forget our fundamental mission of teaching, research, and Extension related to food, agriculture, and natural resource systems. The experiment station at Burns lives up to meeting the mission needs, and is another example of the synergy that results from locating land grant faculty and staff along with USDA Agricultural Research Service personnel – each addressing complementary questions related to cattle, forages, nutrition, range, riparian zones, forests, and other questions of relevance to the area, in collaboration with various other Federal (BLM, NRCS) and state agencies.
Madras – pronounced Mad-Russ in Oregon, and named for the city in southern India, pronounced Mud-Rass – located in central Oregon offers yet another unique ecosystem and habitat for Oregon’s bounty of agriculture. This station is home to research on potatoes, forages and cereal, vegetable seed, grass seed, peppermint, along with other potential new crops. We ate dinner with the stakeholders, many local farmers.
Yet, again, these partners discussed the importance of the work being done by the faculty and staff at the station – for example I was told that research done at the station on carrot seed contributed to a reduction of Nitrogen use by nearly 65%; similarly, research on honey bee responses to aggregation pheromone to increase pollination in carrot seed is being awaited eagerly by the growers, many of whom helped, along with others, to secure extra funding from the legislature for a honey bee faculty position.
The return trip to Corvallis – named for “heart of the valley”, according to history books – from Burns takes one through the Cascades, with its gorgeous passes, snow covered peaks, old growth forests, and beautiful vistas. One sees also places where the forests have been clear cut or have burned in multiple fires over the years. The switchbacks and winding roads reminded me of sections of the Himalayas, which my son-in-law, Andrew Park, and I rode on Royal Enfield Bullet motorcycles.
In my travels around the state, as I have met with our stakeholders, I have tried to articulate the significant challenges we face as a result of the economic downturn, which is requiring us to reconsider how we organize ourselves in a way that allows us to continue to deliver on our mission. Well into the early 1980s, 100% of funding for land grant institutions such as OSU has come from state and federal sources; however, the percentage of State and Federal support has been declining, to the extent that it amounts to, for Oregon State University, less than 13% today. This situation has required land grant universities to seek alternative sources of revenue, including ever increasing levels of tuition on students, fees for Extension programming, grants and contracts for research, licensing and royalties from intellectual property, and sale of commodities.
Thus, the new “business plan” for land grant universities is to seek ever increasing proportions of funding from sources that wax and wane based on whatever is in vogue – a business plan that is not sustainable over the long term. This new business plan is forcing our faculty to seek funds from whatever source they can get to support their programs, including in some cases their salaries, which means they will be addressing issues of interest to the funding organization, which may not necessarily jibe with that of our stakeholders. This situation puts significant strain on our ability to deliver on the land grant mission.
Well into the current fiscal year, we do not have certainty on the budget situation – in part, because of the successful petition drive that has referred the tax increase for a vote in January. The outcome of that vote will determine the severity of the cuts for our college, which could range from 10% to 20% or even higher. If it is indeed the latter, it means that potentially of every $5 we will see a reduction of at least $1. In that scenario, we are looking at a truly significant impact on a college that has been already subjected to a number of budget cuts previously.
The budget cuts, in combination with the new business plan we have to operate under, will require us to do a lot less than we have been able to do, because we will need to have a significantly smaller state-supported footprint. I have explained the situation to our stakeholders, and said that as we go forward we will need to take a hard and careful look at our college’s organization, including our branch stations, and how we will deliver on our land grant mission. While our stakeholders understand these truly unusual times require us to be responsive in how we serve our mission, because all issues are local; a few tend to unfortunately take a very local view, rather than a global view. I am gratified, however, that most have said they understand the need for us to be creative at addressing the budget challenges, but hope that we will be creative in meeting their local needs as well. That is a promise I have made, i.e., we may not have the current organization, nor entities our stakeholders are used to, but we will certainly strive to protect the local interests. In order to achieve the latter, we will need to rely more and more on our partners and stakeholders, not only for direct support of our programs, but also for their help in articulating to the legislators the local needs in research and Extension, which will make our food and agricultural systems competitive and profitable.