Failure to pass a farm bill in a timely manner could derail agriculture research programs that are major focus at Mississippi State University, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said during a visit to the campus Sept. 25.
The university, which had some $97 million in ag research in fiscal 2011, was recently ranked 9th in the nation for research and development spending in agricultural sciences by private and public institutions. In 2012, USDA research grants to the university totaled more than $28 million.
“I’m proud of the relationship between USDA and Mississippi State,” Vilsack said. His tour of the university and its research facilities also included a dinner with university and state agriculture leaders. He also was to participate in a town hall discussion on “Food, Farm and Jobs Bill, Commonsense Immigration Reform and Rural Economic Development” at Jackson, Miss.
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Failure to pass farm legislation — which has been embroiled in a wrangle over cuts to the food assistance programs that have been the major component of past farm bills — could not only have an adverse impact on agricultural research programs, Vilsack said, but could also jeopardize international relations.
He particularly cited the U.S./Brazil cotton case. “Brazil got a successful ruling (in the cotton suit) from the World Trade organization,” he said, with resulting potential for $850 million per year in retaliatory levies. Those retaliations have been held in abeyance by payments of $12 million per month by the U.S., he said, “but we will lose authority to make those payments unless we can pass a farm bill and resolve the problem.”
Research projects at Mississippi State and other universities around the country have not only helped to strengthen U.S. agriculture and make it more efficient and productive, Vilsack said, they have also been a sustaining factor in restoring the nation’s economy after the 2007-09 recession.
He said he hopes, in the next few days, to speak before the Senate about the progress in biofuels research and its importance to the U.S. energy picture, and that he will use that platform to also encourage passage of the farm bill.
In visiting MSU’s biofuels research facilities, Vilsack said he would cite the university’s programs as an example of important work being done to develop alternative energy products that “could be extraordinarily important to this country in terms of reducing our reliance on foreign oil.”
Importance of biofuels
The oil industry “has been knocking this (biofuels) industry down a bit,” he said, and his talk before the Senate will be “an opportunity for us to have a conversation on the importance of this industry.”
During his visit to the university’s Sustainable Energy Research Center, Vilsack asked Rubin Shmulsky, professor and head of the Department of Forest Resources, if waste products from biofuels processes might be used as soil amendments or for other energy processes, and was told that some may have potential as fertilizer.
“Keep an eye on this,” Vilsack said, noting that the farm bill includes federal assistance for commercialization of such products. Biofuels, he said, could be “the future for both America and Mississippi.”
Among projects at the MSU Bioenergy Pilot Plant is a process to convert biomass such as pine chips into fuel.
Vilsack’s tour also included the Division of Agriculture, Forestry, and Veterinary Medicine, arranged by C. W. Herndon, associate vice president of the division. He was briefed on water conservation programs and beef cattle production systems.
Robbie Koger, Extension assistant professor of aquatic sciences in the Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Aquaculture, showed Vilsack projects on water conservation, water quality, and best management practices.
Through the Research and Education to Advance Conservation and Habitat program, Koger develops innovative management practices for water use and disseminates findings to the state’s farmers to enable them to save water while maintaining yields.
“These innovative, creative water conservation projects are a direct link to producers to encourage them to better utilize conservation to not only reduce water contamination, but to preserve water quality,” Vilsack said.
He also toured the Soil-Plant Atmosphere Research Units at the R.R. Foil Plant Research Center, where crops are grown under a variety of conditions.
“We can control every variable but sunlight,” said Raja Reddy, research professor of plant and soil sciences, whose work also includes analysis of how climate change may affect crops in the future.
“This is cutting edge research,” Vilsack said, that “will inform not just what goes on in Mississippi, but all across the U.S.”
At the College of Veterinary Medicine, Mark Lawrence, professor of basic sciences, discussed support the division’s diagnostic labs provide to the state’s aquaculture industry.
Expertise in warm water aquaculture species makes the university uniquely qualified to address not only the needs of Mississippi producers, Lawrence said, but also those in developing countries, most of which are in warm water regions.
“It’s important to this country that we continue to have a vital economy,” Vilsack said, “and to do that, we have to have production agriculture. We need to continue to expand agriculture, particularly export opportunities.”
Mississippi State University is targeted to be a vital part of a highly productive U.S. agriculture, he said.
MSU President Mark Keenum, a former USDA undersecretary, said “We’re honored by the Secretary coming to review our research. The USDA is one of the largest departments in American government and touches everyone in this country.”
Agriculture is vitally important to Mississippi, Keenum said, generating one-fourth of the state’s annual revenue.