I had almost finished an entirely different column for this issue Thursday when news dropped from Athens. But first I need to give you some background so you see where all this is going. This is about cutting budgets and knowing where to cut and what to cut.
When I became park and tree director for the city of Savannah back in 1983, we had some issues with work program accomplishment, or lack thereof. For the first two years we achieved an employee turnover rate of 24 percent per year. Once we pruned out the deadwood, our productivity really picked up – the point being that we divested ourselves of the employees who would not work and did not benefit the mission and rewarded those who did work.
I know this concept is valid. I have used it myself to great effect. Another concept that comes to mind is to not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Or maybe don’t bite the hand that feeds you.
Resolved: Governments and their agencies at federal and state levels have to act quickly and make deep fiscal cuts to maintain economic solvency. I agree it has to be done. I am not questioning that at all. The state of Georgia requires itself to balance its budget, which is as it should be. The economic downturn has caused a dramatic loss of revenue to the state. In response, the state has been cutting its budget steadily to keep the budget balanced.
Funds for research and the Cooperative Extension at the College of Agriculture at the University of Georgia have been cut 24 percent over the past two years, resulting in the loss of 267 positions. Most of these were vacated without layoffs by encouraging early retirements, private industry hiring away talent and not filling any position if it went vacant.
An additional 4 percent state cut for this fiscal year will cost 88 more positions. Most of those will be layoffs, because there is almost no one left of retirement age. I expect many in private industry have lost 28 percent of their revenue stream as well, and there is no reason the university should be immune from the pain the rest of the state suffers. I am not expecting preferential treatment, just equitable treatment.
In an effort to keep some of our best, brightest, most productive and most valuable research scientists, the college moved them from state funds to federal funds. We are trying to not eat our seed corn. We need the plant breeders, plant pathologists and entomologists who develop better yielding disease and insect resistant crops that feed the world and keep Georgia farmers competitive. We can replace county agents (yes, I include myself) a lot easier than we can our top researchers.
So you see I have not really had a problem with the cuts up until now because Dean Scott Angle and his team had been able to keep the essential services of the college intact.
All the cuts to date have been on the state funding side, not the federal funding side. But now the other shoe has dropped.
I was hoping federal programs cuts would acknowledge the areas of government that are producing wealth and generating jobs. The agriculture sector is one of the bright spots in the economy. For instance, let us take a look at the Smith Lever Act of 1914, which created and partially funded agricultural research and cooperative extension at America’s Land Grant universities, like the University of Georgia and my alma maters, Ohio State University and the University of Tennessee.
Let’s just take one crop – corn. Before the Smith-Lever Act, corn yields were less than 1,600 pounds per acre. Now average yields are more than 6,400 pounds per acre. A more than 400 percent increase in productivity. The United States is currently responsible for 40 percent to 45 percent of the world’s corn supply and 70 percent of total global exports. You can look up any other major crop and find similar remarkable improvements in yield efficiency made possible by the agricultural researchers at the Land Grant universities and the extension programs that bring that improved technology to America’s farmers.
As I have told you before in this column, when I started college back in the Pleistocene of the 1970s, starvation was a global necessity because the world could not grow enough food to feed all the people in it. Today, we do produce enough food so every person on the planet could be well-fed – if only we could get the politics from between the hungry people and the food.
I am not saying we cannot take a cut. Even the U.S. Department of Defense agrees there are some of their programs that can be cut without affecting security. I just do not see the sense of slashing a program that is actively supporting wealth creation and job creation.
The U.S. House of Representatives’ Appropriations Committee released its proposed budget for the rest of 2011. Their proposal includes deep cuts to federal departments, agencies and programs, especially those that are agriculture-related. Cuts to agriculture agencies total $217 million, or 16 percent of funds allocated for agriculture. Although agriculture is about 2 percent of the federal budget, agriculture is targeted with 22 percent of the total proposed budget cuts.
Three (3) percent of Americans live on farms but produce all of your food. Agriculture is Georgia’s largest industry and employs more people in this state than any other industry. That did not happen by accident. The College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences has worked hand in hand with the agricultural producers of this state to make that success a reality.
Much of this proposed cut is aimed squarely at cooperative extension programs with proposed cuts in our formula funding (Smith Lever Act of 1914) of 10 percent. Georgia agricultural research programs stand to lose as much as $5 million in competitive grant funds, too. We will have to scale-back or close vital agriculture research programs. Programs that would be reduced include food safety, plant breeding and crop improvement, energy and bioenergy, climate risk, water use efficiency and productivity.
For UGA Cooperative Extension, this cut will be a 10-percent reduction equaling almost $800,000. The only choice for the extension is to move even more counties to a lower tier of service, causing local citizens to lose access to a county agent and needed programs. We will have to eliminate 20 more county agent positions, reducing our total number of agents serving Georgia to 219. With 159 counties in the state, that averages less than 1.4 agents per county.
If these cuts are made, 53 Georgia counties will no longer have a county extension agent. County agents are 4-H agents, ag agents and Family and Consumer Science agents. The tier plan for Bryan and Liberty counties before the federal cuts were announced were to phase out one of us ag agents so Bryan and Liberty would each have a full time 4-H agent but share an ag agent.
OK, so now what? First, take a look at the cuts recommended in the federal budget and decide for yourself if you think this makes sense. Second, regardless of whether you agree with the cuts not, let your Congressman know where you stand on this proposed budget while your input can still affect change.
Gardner is the extension agent for Bryan County. He can be reached at dgardner@UGA.edu.