The Hagstrom Report

Agriculture News As It Happens

Earmarks or no, members still backing ag projects


Members of Congress may have ended the practice of earmarking specific agricultural research and construction projects in their districts, but they are still writing to Agriculture Department officials to urge funding, Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan said Sunday.

Asked how farmers and others with an interest in specific agricultural research projects could defend them and promote their continuation, Merrigan signaled that members of Congress are still involved in the process even though the formal earmarking of projects in appropriations bills has stopped.

“To state the obvious, there is no lack of letters coming from Congress,” she told the North American Agricultural Journalists after the group toured the U.S. National Arboretum, a USDA research facility.

The National Institute for Food and Agriculture, established by the 2008 farm bill, has the stature of the National Institutes of Health and is raising the credibility of agricultural research, said Merrigan, who was in charge of research when she worked for the Senate Agriculture Committee in the late 1980s and early 1990s and was later a professor at Tufts University.

USDA wants to get professors off the grant-writing treadmill so they can spend more time on their research, she said. But in a time of tight budgets, USDA has to set priorities for research, and is making fewer, larger grants.

“We can’t be funding the same thing in every state,” Merrigan said, noting that when a research topic becomes popular, every university hires a lobbyist to push its work in that area. The agency is going to have to concentrate its funding, she said, focusing research so that certain universities become the leaders in some areas, but will have to look to other universities for research other areas.

Research laboratories and their construction budgets “weigh down the budget,” Merrigan said. A new facilities review is needed, she said, adding that USDA can conduct it without specific funding from Congress.

The 1990 farm bill included a facilities closure commission like the base closure commissions used for the military, but it never amounted to much. Colien Hefferan, the director of the National Arboretum and a longtime Agricultural Research Service executive, said that the 1990 commission wrote a study “that was very limited in scope” and to which little attention was paid.

During the tour of the National Arboretum, agricultural journalists from around the country saw a facility that looks like a park and is perhaps best known for its collection of azaleas, but is really the largest horticultural research facility in the world.

Founded in 1926, the National Arboretum is a repository for germplasm from around the world. In addition to the well-known bonsai and herb garden, the Arboretum’s current exhibits include “Power Plants,” featuring plants that can provide fuel ranging from corn and sugarcane and sugar beets to castor beans, barley, mustard and jatropa. As gas prices rise, a guide said, the exhibit has become more popular and tourists often argue over what plant would provide raw material for fuel most efficiently.

Margaret Pooler, a research leader at the Arboretum, noted that horticulture is the third largest agricultural industry after corn and soybeans.

Officials said the Arboretum’s most recent research discoveries and development include:
  • A newly found genetic race of the American elm that may help restore an iconic tree that has been ravaged by Dutch elm disease.
  • Preserving seed from ash trees being threatened by the emerald ash borer.
  • The discovery that mid- or late-day irrigation of container plants results in less container leachate and increased growth of trees