New state budget helps maintain ag research and extension programs

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- A 3.4 percent increase in funding for Penn State agricultural research and extension included in the newly passed 2013-14 state budget will help to maintain programs critical for Pennsylvania's agricultural industry and the consumers it serves, according to a University administrator.

Other funding in the budget will be used to establish three resource centers that will bring Penn State and the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture together to address key agricultural issues in the state, said Barbara Christ, interim dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences.

"We are extremely grateful to the General Assembly and the governor for this increase in our appropriation for the coming year," Christ said. "This is a positive statement regarding the work we do and speaks to the need for these programs in helping to ensure a safe and abundant food supply and vibrant agricultural economy in Pennsylvania.

"With this investment by the state, we will continue our commitment to bring the resources of this leading research institution to bear on the challenges and opportunities facing Pennsylvania agriculture, communities, businesses and consumers."

The budget provides a $1.5 million increase for agricultural research and extension, bringing the total to more than $46.2 million.

These appropriations, which account for nearly half of the College of Agricultural Sciences' base funding, pass through the Department of Agriculture's land scrip fund dedicated to land-grant university agricultural research and extension. Penn State is the state's sole land-grant university.

This base funding supports the faculty, staff and infrastructure needed for the college to compete for research grants, most of which come from federal agencies such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. These grants make up the lion's share of the college's annual research expenditures, which approach $100 million.

"Without the state's contribution, we would be unable to leverage our resources to bring this external funding into Pennsylvania, where it generates jobs and economic activity and keeps our food system on the cutting edge," Christ said.

Christ noted that the college has made much progress as it adjusts to a sluggish economy that has fueled an era of shrinking resources at the state and federal levels. As part of a University-wide effort to enhance efficiency and maximize areas of strength, the college last year reorganized its academic departments, reducing their number from 12 to nine.

In addition, the college restructured the development and delivery of Penn State Extension programs. That effort created statewide program teams of faculty and county-based educators focused on various agricultural sectors and issues, with an eye toward tapping the organization's full resources to solve problems anywhere in the state. The restructuring also maintained an extension presence in every county while shifting administrative services to the district level, which is expected to eliminate duplication and create efficiencies.

Despite these reorganizations, an erosion in appropriations -- underlined by a 19 percent cut in state funding in 2011-12 -- combined with rising costs has led to recent downsizing. Through layoffs, attrition and retirement incentives, the college's permanent workforce has shrunk by about 25 percent in the last three years, from more than 800 employees to about 600.

The 3.4 percent increase in the 2013-14 state budget will serve mostly to maintain current programs and minimize further downsizing, according to Christ.

"With increasing costs for state pension obligations, health-care premiums and modest salary increases, we still anticipate needing to bridge a nearly $1 million gap in our budget in the coming year," she said.

As budgets have continued to tighten, the college has sought innovative partnerships that can leverage resources and expertise across organizations to meet critical challenges facing the commonwealth. Christ cited as examples three new agricultural resource centers funded in the new state budget.

A $300,000 appropriation to the Department of Agriculture will create centers to address concerns surrounding food safety, animal care and plant health. The centers will be housed at Penn State and will involve personnel from both organizations in developing the best research-based solutions to scientific, educational and regulatory challenges.

"These centers will promote collaboration on high-priority issues for Pennsylvania agriculture," said Christ. "They will enhance and sustain the economic growth of affected industries and help meet consumer expectations for safe and high-quality food produced with as small an environmental footprint as possible."

Guided by advisory boards, the centers will be a resource for industry, organizations, agencies, legislators, the public and the media, she said.

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Last Updated July 08, 2013