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Investing in the future of agriculture

ST. PAUL -- Farming is a long-term business where decisions made today affect outcomes tomorrow. Farmers plant a crop in the spring and wait until fall to see how the crop turns out. They build a new livestock facility and wait years for the investment to pay back. They select the genetics of a dairy herd and wait three, four or five years to see the results in the bulk tank. Cutting corners on essentials today often means lower returns and less productivity tomorrow.

It is much the same story for agriculture research. An agricultural research project that begins today often takes time before the results are ready to share. Scientists wait for results of laboratory studies, field trials and other analysis to discover the best solution to a problem. In both agricultural research and farming, it takes patience to wait until investments made today make a difference in years to come.

Our society has invested less in agricultural research over recent decades and there are signs that scrimping on agricultural research investments in more recent decades is costing us today. Data from University of Minnesota agricultural economist Phil Pardey shows the rate of growth in U.S. agricultural productivity is slowing as investments designed to spur agricultural productivity decline. His research shows that in the 1950s, U.S. farm productivity was increasing by about 2 percent a year. In recent years, the rate of increase has slowed to slightly more than 1 percent a year. Pardey says one reason for this is a slowdown in the rate of growth of public spending on agricultural research and productivity. Fewer people working to discover new ideas means fewer new ideas to apply in the field.

The decline in the number of researchers at land grant institutions working to discover solutions to agricultural productivity challenges continues today. State and federal investments in agricultural research have fallen for the last 10 years and probably will fall even more in the future. The most recent session of the Minnesota Legislature cut funds for University of Minnesota agricultural research and extension by 12 percent. This is a larger reduction than the rest of higher education and reduces dedicated funds for agricultural research and extension to levels last seen in the early 1990s. Fortunately, the University of Minnesota provided funding to cushion the impact of these cuts on agricultural research and extension.

The funding challenges at the University of Minnesota are not unique. Land grant schools in some other states are struggling with even deeper cuts to agricultural research and extension funding than we have in Minnesota. Families, businesses, schools, counties and others also have to find new ways to do what needs to get done. We are all in this together and will learn how to deal with the challenges from each other.

Our response to the budget challenges at the University of Minnesota will be driven by our commitment to providing the research and Extension that Minnesota agriculture needs. The reductions in agricultural research funding do not change our commitment, but they will make the job of providing research-based solutions to agricultural problems tougher.

The strength of Minnesota agriculture is the ray of hope as we deal with budget challenges. The history of Minnesota agriculture is filled with stories of farmers and university experts working together to deal with plant pests, eliminate animal diseases, develop improved production practices and respond to economic challenges. That history will repeat itself as we respond to the current challenge.

Working with our partners will provide solutions. Minnesota is fortunate to have agricultural leaders who are innovative thinkers and will be strong partners as we work together to assure Minnesota agriculture has the research-based information it needs. We look forward to working together to provide research-based information that will make a difference in Minnesota.

Bev Durgan is dean of the University of Minnesota Extension Service and director of the Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station.