Jun 29, 2007
UC Cooperative Extension Battles Back From Drastic State Budget Cuts

When it comes to agriculture in the United States, it doesn’t get much bigger than California. The Western state stretches hundreds of miles from north to south, encompassing a diverse range of climates, soil types, people and farms.

California’s agricultural production was valued at $34 billion in 2005. Fruit and nuts contributed $10.4 billion to that, vegetables and melons $6.2 billion. Individual commodities like grapes, lettuce, strawberries and tomatoes contribute billions of dollars to the state’s economy, according to the University of California, the state’s land-grant institution.

UC’s Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources (ANR) supports and sustains California’s thriving ag industry through an extensive system, including three college campuses – Berkeley, Davis and Riverside – nine research centers and about 60 county offices. According to growers and others who work with produce, UC helped California agriculture become a model for the rest of the world and its services are still vital to the industry, but severe budget cuts have strained the system and shifting priorities have altered the nature of the relationship.

New priorities

Ed Zuckerman, a vegetable and wine grape grower in San Joaquin County, said the plight of the everyday farmer is not UC’s priority anymore. The services it does provide are good and the people he works with are great, but it’s not the resource it was 20 years ago.

Rick Standiford, ANR’s acting vice president, said he understands why some growers might be upset about the lack of emphasis on traditional production agriculture, but it’s hard to maintain the same focus when there are so many other priorities. Air and water quality, invasive species, export markets, food safety (a top priority since the E. coli outbreak in spinach), environmental practices, cost of production, pest management and other issues are just as important to a farm’s bottom line.

“Being in compliance with air and water quality is part of profitability,” said Standiford, who oversees ANR’s Agricultural Experiment Station and Cooperative Extension branches. “If you can’t maintain cost-effective ways to follow the law, you’re not going to be in business.”

Budget woes

UC Cooperative Extension (UCCE) has an annual budget of $85 million – 60 percent from the state, 18 percent from the federal government, 15 percent from counties and 7 percent from sales, services and endowments, according to Standiford.

Compared to smaller states like North Carolina ($100 million) and New York ($90 million), California’s annual Extension budget is not that impressive. Then again, it’s not what it used to be.

Federal funding has remained flat, while state funding has been drastically reduced. Most of the cuts came during California’s financial crisis a few years ago, when the state cut $12 million from UCCE’s budget. An increase in county funding has partially offset the state cuts, but UCCE has yet to fully recover, Standiford said.

County advisers

As in every state, California’s county advisers serve as the interface between researchers on campus and growers in the field. They’re an essential part of the information loop, but there aren’t nearly as many as there used to be – thanks to budget cuts.

In 1990, there were 326 county advisers in California. Now, there are 224. Campus specialists went from 202 to 118. The county positions are slowly being replaced, but the campus ranks are still depleted, Standiford said.

Despite California’s shortage of county advisers, their level of expertise remains high. About 30 percent of them hold doctorates. In every other state, no more than 10 percent of the county agents have reached that level, Standiford said.

Larry Bettiga, a viticulture adviser in Monterey County, said he and his colleagues are doing more applied research now than they were when he started 29 years ago, probably because of the shortage of campus-based researchers. The additional work has stretched the remaining advisers pretty thin, making it harder for them to generate new information.

Still, when necessary, UCCE can pull together enough resources to address major needs in the state, Bettiga said.

“We can’t do everything, but we still do a pretty fair job of addressing big needs when they arrive.”

Bill Coates, who’s been a tree fruit and nut adviser in San Benito County for 31 years, has noticed one big change since his early days: He does a lot more typing now. At one time, he would hand-write newsletters or other messages and his secretary would type them up. Thanks to computers and printers, however, he inputs information in a more direct manner – and it reaches more people than it used to.

Coates said hardly anybody requests information via mail anymore. They mostly call or e-mail, which makes it easier for him to answer specific questions. He still visits farms, but not as often as he used to. It’s easier for a grower to take a digital photo of the problem and send an e-mail.

“When you get a certain level of expertise, you can address problems on the phone or through e-mail because you’ve seen them before,” Coates said.

Staffing is down somewhat in neighboring counties, but San Benito has remained about the same. The annual budget in 2005-06 was $73,000, most of it provided by the state, followed by federal, county and other contributions. There are three academic staff members in the county office (paid by the university) and a secretary (paid by the county), Coates said.

Wine grapes

UC made the California wine industry what it is today, said Karen Ross, president of the California Association of Winegrape Growers.

In the last three years, California’s wineries have more than doubled in numberfrom 1,049 to 2,275. Unfortunately, UC hasn’t been able to help as much as it would have in the past due to budget cuts. There aren’t as many viticulture advisers as there used to be, and the enologist position at Davis hasn’t been filled for the last few years, Ross said.

The national wine industry is growing. There’s more competition for enologists and other experts, making it harder to fill skilled positions, she said.

What makes Extension unique is that its advisers are in the field. They can see firsthand what’s going on and develop close relationships with end users. If California’s wine industry wants to continue to be on the cutting edge, it must have a robust research arm led by Extension, Ross said.

Richard Smith, owner of Paraiso Vineyards in Monterey County, has at least two research projects going with his local viticulture adviser, Larry Bettiga.

“He’s a good teacher of fundamentals, but also a capable analyst of specific problems,” Smith said.

Smith also has access to a pathologist, weed scientist and ag engineer in the same county office. He’s worked with them all at one time or another. Independent operators like him need access to some sort of resource like Extension because they, unlike large corporations, can’t afford to hire their own researchers.

“Extension is a way to be on the cutting edge without hiring your own staff of scientists,” he said.

Strawberries

UCCE is a key component in the transfer of research results to growers, said Dan Legard, director of research for the California Strawberry Commission.

Strawberries are big business for California. The state’s 34,000-plus acres account for about 88 percent of the fresh and frozen strawberry production in the United States, Legard said.

UC’s strawberry licensing program has helped spread California berries all over the world. The program has patented 33 strawberry cultivars and its varieties account for more than half of worldwide production, according to the university.

Tomatoes

UCCE crop specialists are a great help to the state’s processing tomato growers. Among other things, they review the efficacy of different cultural practices, conduct cost studies, compare cover crops and analyze irrigation methods, said Ross Siragusa, president of the California Tomato Growers Association.

Spotted wilt and yellow leaf curl have recently become problems for processing tomatoes. UCCE personnel are helping growers develop management practices to contain or eliminate the viruses, he said.

“Growers look at Extension specialists as partners and consultants.”

Five advisers work with California’s more than 220 processing tomato growers and their 290,000 acres. It’s enough to help, but Siragusa would like to see more.

Michelle LeStrange has been an adviser in Tulare, Kings and Fresno counties for 22 years. She works with tomatoes, bell peppers and other vegetables. She shares responsibility for certain commodities with other advisers in her area, but some develop more expertise with a certain crop than others, she said.

Growers in her area want her to experiment in their fields, even though it costs them in terms of production area, transplanter and crew time, she said.

Asparagus

California asparagus growers live and breathe by their cooperation with UCCE, said Cherie Watte Angulo, executive director of the California Asparagus Commission.

“People at UCCE bend over backwards to be helpful to my commission,” she said.

There are about 150 asparagus growers in the state, concentrated in four major production regions. Acreage is down to 22,500 from 36,000 seven or eight years ago, but it’s still the most in the country. Asparagus growers work primarily with two advisers, but other advisers get involved from time to time. Angulo is just happy to have qualified and responsive people to work with.

“I don’t know much about nematodes,” she said with a laugh. “I’m glad they do.”

Brenna Aegerter is one of five farm advisers in San Joaquin County. She works with asparagus, tomatoes, onions and cucurbits. Part of her job is doing applied research – conducted in commercial growers’ fields and funded by commodity boards. She evaluates asparagus varieties and studies weed and disease control in other crops. Lately, she’s been helping farmers navigate the growing thicket of farm regulations. They need to understand and comply with regulations if they want to stay profitable, she said.

A number of UCCE asparagus trials, subsidized in part by the asparagus commission, are held at Zuckerman Family Farms, said Ed Zuckerman, chairman of the commission’s research committee.

UCCE advisers plant, monitor, test and harvest varieties from all over the world on about half an acre at Zuckerman’s farm, gauging their performance and commercial viability in California conditions. They also test promising new fungicides and chemicals, Zuckerman said.

Sweet potatoes

Bob Weimer, a sweet potato grower in Merced County and president of The Sweet Potato Council of California, lobbied hard with others in his industry to secure funding for the local sweet potato specialist.

“Services have somewhat diminished as budgets have been more restrictive,” Weimer said. “We’ve wrestled to maintain what we have.”

There are about 11,000 acres of sweet potatoes in California, 95 percent of them in Merced and Stanislaus counties. The crop is worth $70 million to $80 million per year, Weimer said.

Apples

UCCE has aided California apple growers in their fight against fire blight and codling moth and has helped them find apple strains that are compatible with the state’s climate, said Alex Ott, executive director of the California Apple Commission.

There are more than 300 apple growers in the state, with more than 23,000 acres among them. They have a good relationship with UCCE and have learned much from its research, but there’s always room for improvement. New pests and diseases will always pop up, Ott said.

Jeff Colombini, an apple grower and chairman of the apple commission’s research committee, has set up projects with UC to study rootstocks, varieties, chemicals and fertilizer. Research results from an independent organization like Extension have more weight than research done by a company that’s trying to sell you something, he said.

As good as UCCE is now, it’s a shell of what it was 20 years ago, Colombini said. He wants the state to step up funding, so the system can get back to its former glory.





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