Budget woes continue to confront LSU AgCenter, LDAF

Continued budget shortfalls having impact on research and Extension arm for one of Louisiana's largest industries.

Changes are coming to the LSU AgCenter and its research and Extension components, the chancellor of the AgCenter and vice president of the LSU College of Agriculture said at the Louisiana Agricultural Consultants Association annual meeting.

The Louisiana Legislature opted to reduce funding for the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry in a recent special session, cutting its budget by at least $1.25 million to help address a $304 million mid-year budget shortfall.

The AgCenter appears to have escaped the cuts for now, but that probably won’t stop a realignment of its research facilities and Parish Extension agents, judging from comments by Dr. Bill Richardson during a presentation at the Louisiana Agricultural and Technology Management Conference in Marksville.

“We can’t continue to do what we’ve been doing,” he said. “These changes will impact some of our research stations; it’s going to impact some of our Extension offices.

Dr. Richardson said the AgCenter would continue to produce its management and production guides – “the things you use to make recommendations to your farmers” –variety testing and demonstrations and field days, but it will be changing the mission of its research stations.

Five major hubs

“We have five major hubs in the state; one for each quadrant,” he noted. “Some of the other others will be down-sized considerably. It’s almost impossible for me to maintain the overhead for a research station when you only have one scientist there. We have to look at how to better utilize the resources.”

The AgCenter is also looking at how it will be using its agricultural Extension agents. “The days of having an Extension agent in each parish may be coming to an end,” Dr. Richardson said. “We’re going to have to have people in multiple parishes and working on specific commodities. That’s so they can become very familiar with rice or cotton or whatever the crop may be.”

Dr. Richardson said the AgCenter is determined to fill positions that he said are important to the agricultural consultants, including replacing Dr. Michael Salassi as the agricultural economist specializing in rice, sugarcane and other crops. Salassi is now chairman of the LSU College of Agriculture’s Department of Agricultural Economics and Agribusiness.

“We’ve named Michael Deliberto to fill Dr. Salassi’s position,” he said. “We’re also looking for replacements for Dr. Mike Stout, who became chairman of the Department of Entomology; Dr. David Kerns, an entomologist at the Macon Ridge Research Station who transferred to Texas A&M University; and Dr. Ronnie Levy, the LSU Extension soybean specialist, who is retiring.

“So we are going to be filling those key positions that impact your industry and what you’re doing out there,” he said. “Work with us, but let your legislators know this can’t continue. We’ve lost $23 million in funding, and I’ve had to reallocate another $13 million out of programs and people and into benefit packages.”

33 million fewer dollars

The AgCenter and College of Agriculture are currently working with $33 million fewer dollars than they had on July 1, 2008, he said. “And it can’t continue. It needs to stop, and we need your help on that.”

Dr. Mike Strain, commissioner of the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry, said the nearly $1.3 million in cuts mandated for his department will occur in the current fiscal year or in the next four months between now and July 1 so that if it was extended over a year the reduction would be even more severe.

“In addition to that, they’re going to be looking at attrition rates so there will be additional cuts, depending on how many vacant or open positions there are,” he said. “So we expect it’s going to be upwards of $1.5 million.”

Dr. Strain said this will be the 15th time in 10 years the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry has gone under the budget knife from the Legislature. “Across all the state agencies, we’ve had continuous budget cuts over the last 10 years.

“At the end of the day, we are the state’s largest regulator of commerce,” Dr. Strain noted. “So before ships can be loaded or it can be over food safety – we’re the largest fire fighters in the state. It’s going to reach a point of diminishing returns, as I told the legislators, where if we don’t have the personnel to inspect the grain, the ships don’t get loaded.”

Economic foundation

He said agriculture is the foundation of the Louisiana economy. “We need to grow that, and we’re here to facilitate commerce. If our budget is cut to the point where it slows down commerce, it doesn’t matter what the tax rates are, you’ll never balance the budget.”

To hear more of Dr. Strain’s comments, visit http://talk1073.com/2017/02/24/another-budget-cut-to-louisiana-dept-of-agriculture/


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