Thursday, April 14, 2011

Congressional Vote on Budget Extends Operation of Oconee County Agricultural Research Center

Step Number 4?

Late on last Friday night, Dwight Fisher, research leader at the J. Phil Campbell Sr. Natural Research Center just outside Watkinsville, learned that the House, the Senate and President Barack Obama had reached a compromise on the current fiscal year budget.

That was step number 1, and it meant he and the other employees of the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) center were not being furloughed at midnight.

On Wednesday afternoon, Fisher sent me an email saying he had learned that the compromise budget included funding for the Campbell Center.

That was step number 2, and it meant the Center had a chance to continue to operate until Sept. 30.

This afternoon the U.S. House of Representatives passed the compromise funding bill, and the Senate did the same several hours later.

That, Fisher told me before the vote, should keep the Campbell Center operating through the end of this fiscal year.

Step number 3.

What happens on Oct. 1 is quite another matter.

After Sept. 30?

President Obama has cut the funding for the ARS, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in the 2012 budget. The ARS has targeted the Campbell Center for closing.

Congress could add more money to the USDA and ARS budget, but that seems very unlikely.

The Senate has pledged not to direct money at specific geographic sites, an act called earmarking.

“We’d really like that place to stay where it is,” Ben Mosely, a staff member for Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, told me in a telephone conversation on Friday as the budget negotiations were underway. He said the service and research of the Campbell Center are highly valued by the senator.

Chambliss is a member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry.

Georgia’s other senator, Johnny Isakson, is bound by the same Senate agreement on earmarks.

Rep. Paul Broun, whose 10th Congressional District includes Oconee County, also has said he will not use earmarks.

In fact, Brown voted against the budget compromise today.

According to his web site, he does not feel the cuts were sufficient.

Chambliss and Isakson supported the compromise budget bill.

All three are Republicans.

Mosely said all he could recommend to citizens who want to support the Campbell Center is that they write to the ARS and ask it to include the Center in next year’s funding.

The administrator of ARS is Dr. Edward Knipling. His email address and mailing address are in this link.

The closing of the Campbell Center would be very hard on the six research scientists and 19 support staff employed there, Fisher told me at the end of last month.

Research projects are tied to specific plots, and it takes three or more years for a scientist to begin gathering data from a project, he said. When a scientist moves, she or he has to start over.

Employees will be offered jobs elsewhere in the country if the Campbell Center closes, Fisher said.

For Oconee County, the loss of the 1,100 farm acres, most of them in the heavily populated Northeastern part of the county, could radically change the county’s balance of greenspace and developed land.

The Campbell Center was begun as the Southern Piedmont Experiment Station on Jan. 1, 1937, according to a history of the Center’s first 50 years that Fisher gave me.

The Center from the beginning focused on soil erosion.

The history explained the reason:

“Nowhere has it (soil erosion) been more evident than in the Southeast, where intense rainfall and sloping fields have combined with continuous row-crow agriculture to rapidly transport fertile soil downhill to clog streams, bottomland flood plains and reservoirs leaving behind eroded and gullied farms, nonproductive lands and impoverished people.”

The Watkinsville location was selected, according to the document, “because it was representative in climate, soils, and topography” of the Southern Piedmont, which extends from eastern Alabama northeast through Georgia, the Carolinas and into Virginia.

The Center continues to focus on soil erosion problems, and recently has begun research to study how known techniques to prevent erosion can be applied best in organic farming, according to Fisher.

What is learned at the Center has application to farmers in Oconee County and the region, he said.

“If they defund us, people will realize the need for the research in the future and will have to refund it somewhere else,” Fisher said.