Will Research Benefit Family Farms

By Chuck Francis, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

In the current debate over new federal farm legislation, there is continuing concern about how the outcome will affect small and mid-size family farms. Distribution of benefits, subsidies tied to production, and ownership of cattle in feedlots are among the issues that need to be resolved. How does consolidation in the input sector, as well as among the
major buyers of commodity crops affect the family farm? Does this consolidation approach a monopoly status that inhibits the function of the marketplace? Among the details of the farm bill are provisions for research, and the agenda for agricultural research should be a concern to all of us in NSAS.

Changes in Research Funding
Over the past two decades there has been a large shift in where research dollars come from, with reduced local sources and more dependence on federal grants and other foundation support. Where we once depended on state positions and operating funds, as well as local commodity boards, the emphasis now is on federal grants that come from National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, or Department of Education. We also look to larger national and international foundations or private corporations to support our ongoing research and education. There is nothing wrong with bringing these resources to focus on Nebraska questions, yet there is some loss of local control and priority when we have to respond to these national grant calls. It is more likely that funds generated locally and with local oversight are going to address our unique challenges in Nebraska.

Another change is size of grants. While many research grants from our commodity boards, local foundations, and other nearby sources are often modest in size and scope, many of the federal grants, corporate sources, or private foundation resources are available in much larger amounts. This could skew research toward problems that are broader in scope and have national relevance. The success of such large grants can surely benefit Nebraska in some ways and bring more prominence to the researcher, but it is less likely that these projects are going to be focused on Nebraska issues. And the move toward basic research will not help farmers solve today’s practical problems.

Changes in Research Focus
Along this same line, we are finding more incentives in the large grant arena for state-of-the-art biotechnology ogy and precision agriculture research, as well as gene sequencing, mode of action of herbicides, and new compounds and gadgets that are part of an industrial model of agriculture. These are often highly expensive tools, and to research them requires expensive and well-equipped laboratory and field facilities. They all may be important to the long-term improvements of production and resource use efficiency. Yet again, they often do not address the very real and practical challenges that face farmers today.

When our university research agenda is directed by the size of potential grants and the emphasis of granting agencies on the latest technologies, this skews the program away from practical, systems-oriented research. When we are encouraged to research ideas that can lead to patents, grant overhead, and other sources of income for the university, especially when our budgets are tight, this moves our agenda away from the crucial
"maintenance research" on varieties, fertilizer rates, and management issues that are important to farmers today. Patents on genetic materials and new processes appear to be a reality for the near future, yet when they influence research directions away from other less lucrative endeavors there is something that should be improved in the system.

Changes in the Reward System
When our research community turns inward to communicate primarily with other researchers in their narrow areas of interest, there is obviously going to be less contact with farmers and ranchers in Nebraska. Since decisions on promotion, tenure, and salary increase are entirely an internal matter in the university, there is less incentive to be accountable to our primary audience, the farmers of Nebraska. When our most important peers are the editors and reviewers of professional journals, our colleagues in narrow fields in other universities, and the decision makers in granting agencies, again we will lose a vital contact with clients in agriculture in the state. Our accountability is no longer to the real clients of the landgrant system, the citizens and agricultural producers of Nebraska. There will always be a debate about the need for balance between basic and applied research. It appears that we are currently rewarded for getting large grants, and many of these happen to be in basic research areas.

Changes in State Priorities
As described in a front-page article by Chuck Hassebrook in the New York Times, the Nebraska legislature decided recently in a time of budget crunch to downsize several key programs that directly benefit rural areas in the state. Departments and budgets that deal with rural economic development, the local school systems, and diversification were all targets for the cuts. The decisions reflect a changing demographics, even in an agricultural state such as Nebraska, to more citizens and their elected representatives concerned about urban issues. Some see this as a graduation from our agricultural roots. Others see this as discounting the future importance of the vital rural sector to our state’s economy. We need to address this question as a rural community.

What Can Be Done?
The obvious recommendation is involvement. If there are parts of this research agenda that have you concerned, it is time for you to get better informed and then take whatever action you consider important. Talking with researchers, teachers, and Extension people can better fill you in on changes in research direction and funding. Looking at our web sites and evaluating the publications and other outputs from the research division will give you a better idea of where we are focused and what the outputs of research are at this moment. When you feel informed about the issues, it is logical to follow through be contacting department heads, center directors, and deans about your specific concerns and suggestions. Democracy works, and those who are in contact with decision makers often have a strong influence on the direction of the programs. Inviting key administrators and researchers to meetings can be enlightening for you, as well as providing a platform where you can introduce concerns and influence future decisions.

Many of us feel that an important part of Nebraska’s future lies in its vast lands with abundant sunlight and rainfall, plus the essential people who can mold these together into quality agricultural products. We owe it to future generations to keep a focus on practical agricultural production, the incentives for people to farm, and the social climate and community where young farmers and families will want to invest their futures. This can be a reality only if everyone concerned becomes involved. There are many forces going in different directions, but we need to make our voices heard if we want to develop and maintain a truly sustainable agriculture in which the family farm is an essential and viable element.

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