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UA-Yuma ag services cut deep
It won't be business as usual for the University of Arizona agriculture-related staff and services in Yuma County, hit hard by steep budget cuts.
The UA has had a longtime presence in the Yuma community as Arizona's land grant university, stretching back to the institution's establishment in 1885 when a large part of its mission was to support agriculture through education, outreach and research.
That mission remains strong in Yuma County with UA's Cooperative Extension for outreach and education, the Yuma Agriculture Center for research and an agriculture college degree offered through a partnership with Arizona Western College and Northern Arizona University-Yuma. All three programs may involve the same personnel to some extent.
As a public institution, it's been supported by taxpayer dollars for more than 100 years.
“But that model is changing,” said Kurt Nolte, executive director of UA facilities in Yuma. “Over the last 10 years, UA Yuma has had budget reductions every year that have taken a large bite out of our operation and staffing. The cumulative effect has been 20 percent reductions.”
This year was worse, with UA Yuma's operational budget cut by 40 percent. The devastating news came two weeks ago in a budget that usually is finalized by July 1 with the start of the new fiscal year, Nolte said.
“The funding cuts are forcing changes in the way we do business. To keep our doors open and maintain a presence in the community, we will need to act more like a business than a public institution. We have to find ways to pay the utilities and labor.”
One cost-saving measure was to fold the Extension program and experimental farm into one entity under Nolte's direction. That's not necessarily a bad thing, he noted, as it means a more efficient operation and staff members working corroboratively.
Other cost-saving measures are less welcome, though. They include a reduction of staff, accomplished so far mainly through attrition, belt-tightening throughout the two facilities and even more reliance on grants and contracts to fund research than in the past. And the Ag Center will be growing crops commercially in competition with farmers it is pledged to serve.
That is a particularly bitter pill, said Nolte, for the faculty who have always seen themselves as public servants.
The crops will be grown on about 500 acres UA owns in the Yuma area that had been leased out in the past, Nolte said. “We will grow and sell crops and hope we make a profit to help meet expenses. Our new model will be self-sustainability.
“It's a moral dilemma. We'll be competing with private industry while at the same time serving them.”
But perhaps an even greater concern is the reduction of state-derived public funding for research. “In the future, research will be tied to federal grants, gifts from industry and contracts,” Nolte said.
Worrisome, too, is the loss of research staff over the last few years. “Five years ago, we had 10 full-time faculty researchers at the Ag Center. When people leave we just don't replace them. We're now down to six. We've lost 40 percent of our research staff.”
That has Nolte holding his breath for the next crisis in area agriculture, whether it's a devastating new pest, a virulent new disease or other challenge.
“We have world-renowned researchers,” he said, who have dealt with such major issues as the whitefly outbreak of the 1990s that threatened the melon and vegetable industries, perchlorate (a compound used in rocket fuel) found in the Colorado River that posed a potential public health risk, and valuable research into plant diseases and weed control. A researcher currently is working on vegetable mechanization, and groundbreaking work on food safety is being done here.
“So there's been a lot of impact over the years,” Nolte said, not just for Yuma-area farmers but agriculture production around the world, as well as protection of the environment and public safety and health.
“But if we have another major problem, we may not be able to meet the challenge,” he said.
“It's not just an industry problem. More than half the economy here is dependent on agriculture. If there's a pest or disease problem with a catastrophic effect on agriculture in Yuma, we may not have the means to solve the problem quickly.”
There is a silver lining, though, to the budget cuts, he said.
“We have the opportunity to grow in a different way. We need to identify the most important services we can provide and streamline. We have greater efficiencies in the office and more collaboration among the agents and faculty. We're trying to trying to adapt to the changes and come up with long-term solutions.”
Reach Joyce Lobeck at email@example.com or 539-6853.