SDSU Cuts Foster Fears of Sapping Innovation

In the whirlwind of moves following the Legislature’s decision this March to reduce state spending 10 percent across the board in South Dakota, an agricultural research station near Highmore landed in the rubble heap of those cuts.

Little known to most South Dakotans, the Highmore facility, known as the Central Crops and Soils Research Station, can be seen as a sort of symbol as state and higher education officials try to come to grips with just how much damage the budget cuts have caused – and will cause in the future.

The pain of budget cuts are being felt on all public university campuses. Indeed, in every elementary school, nursing home, courthouse and corner of South Dakota that is losing state money, the greatest concerns in higher education seem to fall on the potential damage for ag research and the state’s No. 1 industry.

Long term, the cuts threaten innovation to help farmers, SDSU officials say, and already are driving away top researchers.

State Sen. Larry Tidemann, R-Brookings, said he didn’t anticipate the depth of cuts to ag research and cooperative Extension when considering the budget this year.

Lawmakers had asked SDSU officials for their plan if a 10 percent reduction was imposed.

“They basically said, ‘We don’t know. We’ll have to develop a plan,’ ” said Tidemann, vice chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. “Was I surprised by the extent of the cuts they ended up making in ag research? Yes.”

Besides closing the Highmore station, SDSU research also took these hits:

  • 41 job layoffs within Agriculture Experiment Station and the Cooperative Extension service, as well as the elimination of seven vacancies that won’t be filled.
  • The closing of a soil testing lab and an agriculture-analysis lab on the SDSU campus.
  • A 17 percent reduction in pay for 99 agriculture researchers.
  • The closing of a second experiment station, in Miller.

Jack Warner, executive director of the Board of Regents, said ag research is tied directly to the strength and vulnerability of South Dakota’s economy. So decisions to lay off researchers and reduce their salaries, Warner said, “are the ones I worry about the most.”

There are other reasons to worry. SDSU Provost Laurie Nichols said her school already has lost several top-notch researchers who tired of the budget wrangling and took their work elsewhere.

“Maybe these people weren’t seeing a lot of hope,” Nichols said. “Industry snapped them up. It worries us a lot; we talk about that a lot. The budget is what it is, but we’re trying to figure out what else we can do on campus to make them believe in us.”

Research’s S.D. imprint in soybeans, ethanol

To understand the effect of any significant loss or lull in ag research, South Dakotans need to understand what public university researchers have meant to their lives, officials say.

In the early 1970s, the few places growing soybeans in the state were in southeast South Dakota, in Lincoln, Union, Clay, Yankton and Turner counties, said Tidemann, a former director of Cooperative Extension.

Today, thanks to research that developed soybean varieties that have much shorter maturity cycles, Brown and Spink counties in the northeast part of the state are some of the top producers of the crop, he said.

SDSU researchers also were at the forefront of igniting the ethanol industry, said Gregg Carlson, a precision farming agronomist at SDSU. That helped spur the $6- and $7-a-bushel corn farmers are growing today, he said. It has helped to drive up the value of crop land, especially in eastern South Dakota, to between $5,000 and $7,000 an acre.

Carlson estimates that higher yields generated by research, coupled with rising commodity prices, has meant as much as $4 billion in profits to farmers growing corn, soybeans, wheat and alfalfa on South Dakota’s 16 million acres of crop land.

He also estimates that the effect on rising land values, at an average of $2,000 an acre for 50 million acres of farm and range land across the state, could be $100 billion.

“With production agriculture being so successful today and with our university agronomy department taking such a tremendous hit, therein lies the irony,” Carlson said.

“That’s why there is so much frustration in our department among faculty members about what’s going on,” he said. “No one understands that agronomists across the United States are hard to find, in short supply. It makes me almost cry.”

Highmore’s importance in ag studies, production

A microcosm of that frustration is playing out in Highmore, about 50 miles east of Pierre in the central part of South Dakota. The 120-acre station that was deeded to SDSU for research by Frank and Lillie Drew in 1899 has advanced crop production throughout the region in the years since.

Even early in the 1900s, agricultural research in South Dakota was important enough that an investigator at the state college in Brookings would set aside at least five days for the work needed at the Highmore experiment station.

And that was just to travel the 145 miles between the two communities by horse and wagon.

There were no mileage reimbursements in the early 1900s. Even then, money was tight – South Dakota State allowed a researcher one stop a day for a meal and paid for only two nights at a hotel along the way.

Still, the long journey was worth it. The research helped to push corn yields from 20 bushels an acre to 100 in central South Dakota, and wheat yields from 10 bushels to 30 and 40 bushels and beyond.

Researcher Mike Moechnig makes the trip in a little more than two hours. At least he will this year, in what could be the end of a 112-year relationship between SDSU and Highmore’s Central Crops and Soils Research Station.

The area around Highmore typically is drier than other parts of the state, and so the station has been valuable, for example, in testing drought-resistant varieties of wheat. Moechnig, an Extension weeds specialist, does research on weed control, especially in tilled fields. Studies are being done there on alfalfa, trees, grasses and turf and soil conditions.

Gary Haiwick, who works the land four miles east and two south of Highmore, said the climactic conditions in the area are such “that we’re one step from being a desert out here.”

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SDSU cuts foster fears of sapping innovation
Worries reflected in loss of 112-year-old Highmore station
11:36 PM, May. 7, 2011 | 15 Comments
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The experiment station offers him research to find varieties that grow best in those conditions.

“And the thing is, the research station isn’t selling you anything the way private industry is,” said Haiwick, 70. “They’re unbiased. They’re objective.”

SDSU officials say they are closing the station at the end of this growing season because it’s not used as fully as it could be. They also say similar research is being done at a station called Dakota Lakes in Pierre.

While acknowledging the value of Dakota Lakes, Moechnig said research there involves almost exclusively no-till practices, while Highmore uses more tilling. Revenue generated at Dakota Lakes is obtained partially with crop yields. Moechnig’s research on weed control often means inhibiting yields.

“I always thought that the station at Highmore complemented the Dakota Lakes station by offering different research opportunities,” he said.

The research in Highmore is valuable, he insisted. And the decision to “mothball” Highmore after this growing season, with no plans to sell it but also no plans to continue studies there, is creating its own frustrations, said forage researcher Chris Lee.

“I read where they’re talking about closing the station, and no one has been contacted. No one has talked to me,” Lee said. “We’ve got bioenergy plots going. We have three different kinds of grasses. I’ve got companies I’m working with, and I don’t know what I’m supposed to tell them.”

Possibly tapping private groups for help

Because research is paid for through grants, the cost to maintain and operate the Highmore station is about $50,000 a year, said Tom Cheesbrough, interim director of the Ag Experiment Station program. Moechnig said he thinks he could raise that amount from commodity groups, ag organizations or other outside groups. But he, like Cheesbrough, understands that the integrity of university research also makes working with external money a delicate proposition.

“The need for external funding is a reality in higher education,” Cheesbrough said. “On the other hand, the thing that SDSU does, and one of its greatest values, is our ability to say we are objective and unbiased discoverers and disseminators of scientific knowledge.”

Randy Englund, executive director of the South Dakota Wheat Commission, said his organization would listen to any such request for money. Rick Vallery of South Dakota Wheat Inc. said he makes no promises, but his group would listen, too.

SDSU will consider those possibilities, Cheesbrough said. On the other hand, the reality of ag research in many of the surrounding states today is that they tend to focus on large, integrated research and outreach centers, he said. Nebraska, North Dakota and Minnesota all have bigger but fewer centers that are more vibrant, more robust, he said.

“That’s what we’re striving for here,” Cheesbrough said. “What we really want is to have research stations that are producing so much value to the people of the state that they are indispensable.”

That vision doesn’t necessarily seal Highmore’s fate, he added. Visions can change. For example, Barry Dunn, SDSU’s dean of the College of Agriculture and Biological Sciences, already has announced a reorganization of the Cooperative Extension Service that includes eliminating county offices in favor of regional centers. But he traveled the state Thursday discussing a possible tweaking of that plan.

“We’ve gotten lots of phone calls, people asking us if we could put small, regional (extension) centers in Winner or Huron or Lemmon or elsewhere, which is nice. It shows people value us,” Dunn said. “If we can get some outside help and support, maybe we can look at that.”

Looking down the road, perhaps they’ll be able to save Highmore as well, Cheesbrough said.

“We need to have discussions with the community and all the researchers and be slow and considerate of how we do this,” he said. “If five years from now we have found a new model, or the state changes and says it wants to put more funding into ag research, then we still have the option to do something there.”

Many people, from Brookings to Highmore, yearn for him to be right and hope the cuts of the past three years don’t cost the state the kind of knowledge ag research creates, including the potential for patents and intellectual property that become the drivers of economic development.

Dunn said Gov. Dennis Daugaard told him a week ago “that, hopefully, we will be able to restore ag research as soon as possible.”

In response to an Argus Leader inquiry, the governor wouldn’t say whether he anticipated the potential damage to ag research that his 10 percent reduction in state funding might cause. He did say SDSU has put together a good plan “even at a time when funds are more limited.

“Because we have balanced our budget,” Daugaard said in an email, “we are in a good position to consider increases next year.”

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