The J. Phil Campbell Sr. Natural Resource Conservation Center on Experiment Station Road outside Watkinsville begins the week under new leadership.
Dwight Fisher took early retirement on Saturday, ending his two-year term as research leader and his 14 years as a scientist at the 1,100-acre federal Agriculture Research Service (ARS) site.
Deborah Brennan, area director for ARS based at the Richard B. Russell Agricultural Research Center on College Station Road in Athens, will assume the position of acting research leader on Tuesday.
|Dwight Fisher, 6/30/2011|
Fisher is the first of the six research scientists and 19 technical support staff at the Campbell Center to leave as the Center approaches the end of this fiscal year on Sept. 30 and its near-certain closing.
Under conditions of the 2012 Agriculture Appropriations Bill, passed by the House on June 16, funding for the Center would end with the current fiscal year and the farmland in Oconee County would be made available to the University of Georgia for continued agricultural research purposes. The bill is now before the Senate.
The University has expressed an interest in taking over the property.
President Barack Obama had not included the $2.9 million for the Campbell Center in the budget he submitted to Congress for the fiscal year that begins on Oct. 1.
The Agriculture Appropriations Bill approved by the House cut $7 billion from Obama’s request. The remaining $125.5 billion in funding includes the U.S. Department of Agriculture, under which ARS falls.
The Agriculture Appropriations Bill passed the House by a vote of 217-203, with all Democrats and 19 Republicans voting against it. Paul Broun, representing Oconee County in Congress, was one of the Republican who voted against the bill.
Rep. Brown had called for even deeper cuts in agriculture funding.
On May 27 the University of Georgia officially posted notice that it was seeking bidders for its 522-acre Plant Sciences Farm on Hog Mountain Road across from North Oconee High School.
Two bids were received by the June 27 deadline, for $11,440,000 from Townley Family Partnership LLP and $522,000 from Richard H. Garrett Jr.
Townley Family Partnership lists its address as 4601 Hog Mountain Road, while Garrett lists his address as 1050 Planter’s Trail, Bogart.
Tony and Elizabeth Townley own the land east of and abutting the Plant Sciences Farm that is listed in the county tax records with the 4601 Hog Mountain Road address.
Tony Townley is one of the founders of Zaxby’s and currently its chief financial officer.
J.H. Dorsey, director of real estate and space management at the University of Georgia, told me on Friday that the university, consistent with state law, would not release the actual bids until a decision by the university had been made. He said he expected that decision to be made later this month.
Fisher said when I talked to him on Thursday afternoon that he had not known until February that the Campbell Center had been targeted for elimination. Fisher said he advised those under him of the likelihood the Campbell Center would be closed at that time.
All staff will be offered alternative assignments if the Center does close, Fisher said, but the assignments can be almost anywhere in the country.
Fisher, 57, was among those offered early retirement, and he opted to accept it.
Fisher said he had to decide whether to stay on at the Center to see it through the almost certain closing or turn to other things immediately.
“The executive branch says close it. The House (of Representatives) says close it. The idea that the Senate will disagree is really slim,” Fisher said. “For me it is time to go write papers.”
He said he will use the time to work with collaborators writing up results of the research he has completed at the Campbell Center.
An expert in grazing systems and forage utilization, Fisher earned his doctorate in 1985 in crop science and biomath at North Carolina State University. He lives in Athens.
Fisher came to the Campbell Center in July of 1997.
The Campbell Center consists of four separate tracts of land, and Fisher took me on a tour of all of them except the South Unit when we met on Thursday.
Our first stop, given my expressed interest in the topic, was a 6-acre plot of land on Hog Mountain Road across from the University of Georgia Horticulture Farm. This is part of the North Unit.
The plot, Fisher said, is designated P1, and is internationally famous. It has not been plowed since 1974, and, through a “double crop-no till” practice, the scientists at the Campbell Center have turned what was depleted red soil to fertile black land.
People come from all over the world to see the plot, according to Fisher.
“If they are interested in sustainable agriculture and conservation tillage, they will stop to see it,” he said.
The Campbell Center was started on Jan. 1, 1937, to conduct research and develop procedures to deal with soil erosion, which plagued the area, state and region.
One of the great values of the Campbell Center is that it has detailed research records going back to that time on many of the fields on the farms, according to Fisher.
The Center’s land also is dotted with research infrastructure, such as sampling wells, flumes with water flow measuring devices, refrigerators for storing water samples and solar panels to power these devices.
Fisher said there is no way to really assess the value of these facilities and resources.
The Center’s 500 head of cattle technically already are owned by the University of Georgia.
“Everybody here is focused on taking care of the land until they hand it to somebody else,” he said.
Fisher said on Thursday that he will miss “the land and the people” once he has walked away from the Center.
“We have some close relations here. It is almost like a family.”