Oregon State University is preparing for a hiring spree in its Extension service, agricultural experiment stations and forest research lab due to a funding boost from lawmakers.

The Legislature has approved a $14.6 million increase for “statewides” public service programs during the 2019-2021 budget cycle, an 11.7% hike over the previous biennium.

The three programs play an important role in Oregon agriculture by connecting farmers with natural resource experts, conducting scientific research into crop and livestock production and improving forest management.

“It’s going to allow us to fill a lot of key vacancies and make some investments in these targeted areas,” said Bill Boggess, executive associate dean of OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences.

Although the programs saw their collective budget increase about 4.7% during the 2017-2019 biennium, to $124 million, that growth was outpaced by the cost of salaries and benefits.

That meant OSU couldn’t keep the programs operating at full capacity and had to leave 18 positions unfilled.

The new $138.4 million base budget for statewides programs approved for 2019-2021 will make up for that loss and allow them to keep pace with the rising cost of salaries and benefits.

“We’re able to recapture what was lost last biennium and maintain our current capacity,” said Boggess said.

The new hires will not necessarily replace the people who retired or took other jobs — OSU will consult with natural resource groups and others to decide which positions should be prioritized, Boggess said.

Replacing a retired specialist in steam-driven tractors, he joked, would likely be a lower priority than hiring someone who has expertise with more current agricultural issues.

Nonetheless, the university will be guided by three “core focus areas,” including natural resource stewardship, sustainable food and forestry production and community economic development and resilience.

Aside from expanding the base budget for those programs, lawmakers also appropriated an additional $5.2 million to pay for about 6 full-time positions focused on water quantity and quality, two new organic farming positions, extending a berry research position, and expanding fire resistance and resilience research.

Boggess said he expects the newly available positions to be filled within the next year or so, since it will take time to narrow their focus, complete the search and then get people moved to Oregon.

A strong revenue forecast provided lawmakers with the means to increase the statewides’ funding, but advocacy on OSU’s behalf by natural resource organizations actually convinced them to pull the trigger, Boggess said.

“When you get that kind of funding, it’s because you get a lot of support from industry and stakeholders,” he said. “They were doing a lot of the heavy lifting for us during the session.”

I've been working at Capital Press since 2006 and I primarily cover legislative, regulatory and legal issues.

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