Some ag stations rely on donations from groups, other seek tax revenue
By MITCH LIES
CORVALLIS, Ore. -- In 2008, Oregon State University College of Agricultural Sciences administrators began considering asking farmers and ranchers to donate to the financially strapped agricultural experiment stations.
Farmer support, the thought went, could help branch stations thrive, show lawmakers that farmers appreciate the stations, and, if the college was forced to shutter one or more of Oregon's 12 stations, help determine which to close.
The idea turned into a directive. In 2009, administrators directed station superintendents to generate 25 percent of their base funding from outside sources.
Today, stations are reporting mixed results.
In all cases, however, the directive has helped improve communication between stations and constituents and served to illuminate the benefits stations provide local communities, according to college administrators.
"It has opened up some conversations that probably wouldn't have taken place without it," College of Agricultural Sciences Dean Dan Arp said. "And one thing that has come through loud and clear to me is how important these branch stations are to the local communities."
Stations have taken a variety of approaches to try and meet the directive.
In Malheur County, farmers and ranchers placed a measure on this year's May 15 ballot to create a special tax district to generate funds for the experiment station and local extension service. Voters approved the measure by 56 to 44 percent, enabling the station to more than meet the directive.
The Columbia Basin Agricultural Research Center, which has farms near Pendleton and Moro, sought help from the Oregon Wheat Commission, and the commission responded, donating $200,000 -- most of what the station needed to meet its directive.
In Central Oregon, individual producers donate funds to the Central Oregon Agricultural Research Center based on the value of crops. Recommended contributions include $10 an acre for carrot seed, parsley and onion seed; $3 an acre for grass seed; and $1 an acre for irrigated noncontracted crops such as alfalfa and wheat.
The approach wasn't universally embraced, said Marvin Butler, superintendent of the Central Oregon station in Madras.
"There was some push back," Butler said. "But it was not the majority."
The station received an additional $20,000 from the Oregon Wheat Commission, $8,000 from the Oregon Potato Commission and $33,000 from the tri-county area's smoke management committee.
The combination has generated about $140,000 for the station, well above the $125,000 needed to meet the directive.
Other stations have been less successful, according to college administrators. But even in cases where stations have not met the directive, farm and ranch contributions have helped, Arp said. And in cases where stations have met the directive, the outside contributions have made a significant difference.
"It gets stations from the survive to the thrive mode," Arp said, "which is what we were hoping to do."
Bill Boggess, executive associate dean of the college, said the idea to generate outside funding for stations germinated in discussions with legislators, who questioned why the college needed a dozen branch experiment stations, when some states have one or two.
Boggess and other College of Agricultural Science administrators explained that Oregon's varied climate zones create agricultural challenges unique to different regions.
Still, Boggess said, in the face of dramatic declines in general fund revenues, the experiment station budget was an easy target: "We faced a lot of scrutiny, particularly from people who didn't know a lot about the stations."
Administrators also told lawmakers that funding the stations' base budgets creates thousands of dollars in economic activity for local communities. Researchers at the Columbia Basin Agricultural Research Center, for example, brought in $847,000 in external grants in 2011, according to station superintendent Steve Petrie.
But, Boggess said, the claims tend to lose their effectiveness when lawmakers are struggling to maintain K-12 education budgets and basic human services and law enforcement.
As a result, lawmakers have sliced the experiment station budget dramatically since the Great Recession started in December 2007. State funding for the stations fell from $30 million in the 2007-09 biennium to less than $25 million in the current biennium. Expenses, meanwhile, particularly in the form of health care and other personnel costs, have risen, Arp said.
While administrators say the college never intended the 25 percent directive as a mandate, superintendents said it has become a driver behind decisions in recent years.
"I'm looking at ways we can better utilize the ground here," said Mike Bondi, superintendent of the North Willamette Research and Extension Center in Aurora. "I'm looking at, can we establish some high value crops or systems here that can generate additional dollars to support research."
Petrie, the Columbia Basin superintendent, said he hopes for a day when state funding for the stations increases to the point where stations don't rely on outside contributors to fund their base budgets.
"It certainly is my hope that as the economy improves that the Legislature will go back to a funding level that we used to have and we won't have to rely so heavily on the wheat commission," Petrie said.
But Petrie, Bondi and others said in general the directive has had positive results.
"I think it's been good, because it has raised the awareness and consciousness of folks in the community that if this is important, they have to contribute to make sure we can be here in the future for them," Bondi said.
"I think it's been valuable," Boggess said, "because I think it has forced good conversations with the local communities about what value does this station bring, and are there ways to enhance that."