Agriculturalresearchers face changes

Alan Bjerga

Editor’s note: This is part two in a four-part series on University services to outstate Minnesota through extension services and experiment stations.

STAPLES, Minn. — Mel Wiens is demonstrating the effects of different herbicides on potato blight. Potatoes could become an important cash crop for farmers around this central Minnesota community of about 2,500. Wiens’ job is to find out how to grow potatoes for profit effectively and efficiently.
“Irrigation is becoming more important in central Minnesota, so there’s more potential for potatoes here,” Wiens said. “But when you’re raising a crop for top yield you increase the chance of crop disease. We’re trying to prevent that.”
Wiens began work at the Central Lakes Agricultural Center, a cooperative experiment field site operated by the University in partnership with the local school district and area technical college, in 1971. Although he is a University employee who works with researchers and administrators on the St. Paul campus, Wiens’ home and family are in Staples. His life and work reflect the changes in his community and its experiment site.
“I started with six plots” of research land, Wiens said. In 1982, 75 research plots were used for soil studies on land fertility and experiments on artichokes as a potential crop for the Staples area.
In 1989 Wiens received his Master’s degree in plant pathology from the University, and in recent years he has expanded his research onto the land of other area farmers.
Meanwhile, the relationship between the University and the site has been evolving. In 1992, the University began negotiations with its partners to take over all responsibility for the station. Under the proposed agreement all land, buildings and equipment would have become University property. The price: $1.
In spring 1994, one day before the deal was to become final, the University pulled out, announcing that not only would it not buy the center, but it was cutting all continuing funding for it. Because of statewide cuts in experiment station funding, the University would no longer ensure the station’s future, and thereafter funding would be strictly on a project-to-project basis.
The result for the Staples site was staff layoffs. In 1994, Wiens lost his job.
The laid-off employees are back now. Funds from the University and research grants are paying for their six- and nine-month contracts to complete the potato project. But the future of research at Staples is less certain now than at any time in the past 25 years.
Wiens sees the changes as another challenge to overcome. “Funding for this site has always been minimal,” he said. “Positions have come and gone. Funding has come and gone, too.”
The challenges the Staples site faces are similar to those of experiment sites across the state as they adjust to changes in both financial support and in the communities they serve. In this decade, outstate agricultural research services sponsored by the St. Paul campus have consolidated programs and adjusted services to meet new rural demands, sometimes at the expense of traditional services but always with present realities in mind.
The cluster concept
One structure central to increasing the efficiency of the state’s six experiment stations and numerous field sites is “clustering.” Clustering focuses all research in one area of agriculture at one experiment station, allowing researchers to pool ideas and resources without overlap. “It’s too expensive to duplicate facilities at services,” said experiment station administrator Marilyn De Long.
For example, clustering has led to a concentration of research on animal grazing at the West Central Experiment Station at the University’s Morris campus, while the Southwest Experiment Station in Lamberton — administratively linked with the Morris station last year — concentrates on crop and forestry research. The coordination of activities cuts costs at both stations.
Clustering has also resulted in moving of animal herds from Rosemount and changing the station’s concentration to turf grass research, sponsoring projects focused more directly on the needs of golfers than farmers. De Long said the change is overdue.
The Rosemount station “was built at the end of World War II, and the University owned it. But we never really knew what to do with it,” De Long said. College of Agriculture Dean Mike Martin said that turf grass research, which will focus on how constant walking over different grasses affects them, illustrates how urban and rural interests can be served by the same research.
Research into grass compaction is useful to farmers with herds, he said.
University regents and administrators agree that clustering makes sense. “It doesn’t take three days by team to travel from Minneapolis to St. Cloud,” said Regent Stanley Sahlstrom. “Counties themselves should probably be in larger units. Combining extension services among counties saves resources and isn’t an undue inconvenience.”
University President Nils Hasselmo agreed, noting that clustering in outstate services is similar to program restructuring across the University. “Clustering is a very good concept because larger service areas provide resources for expertise,” he said. Hasselmo cited interdisciplinary work within the University and interdepartmental programs such as the Cancer Center and the Biomedical Engineering Institute as examples of equivalents of clustering within the University.
But just as reorganization in the name of efficiency on the Twin Cities campus has its drawbacks, so does clustering of rural services. Clustering moves research and education away from the communities it benefits and takes away some of the personal interaction encouraged by the outreach mission. “You don’t have the same direct service — you call, you get voice mail,” said state Rep. Steve Wenzel, DFL-Little Falls and chairman of the House Agriculture Committee.
Sahlstrom, a lifelong farmer and former chancellor of the University of Minnesota-Crookston, also is concerned that clustering for both research and education takes away from the sense of community traditionally associated with rural areas. Sahlstrom grew up on a farm near Onamia in the 1920s and ’30s, and remembers when farmers plowed fields with teams of horses.
“In my youth, you would always rest your horses at the end of the field, because that’s where your neighbor was,” Sahlstrom said. “There was a constant conversation going on,” he said. “I’m afraid we’re losing that.”
A new search for funding
Although restructuring may increase efficiency, it hasn’t allowed University administrators to avoid tough choices in rural program funding. Martin, who as an associate director of Minnesota Experiment Stations made the decision to cut Staples funding in 1994, said the University backed out of the Staples deal because it had no other choice.
“Before I got the budget for that year I was told I would have to cut about $400,000,” Martin said. “When I got the budget, I found out I had to cut another $560,000. We simply couldn’t invest in Staples.”
One reason for the Staples staff layoffs was its lack of tenured faculty at the facility. “I cut them because I could,” Martin said. Tenured faculty would have had to be reassigned elsewhere.
In the face of decreased University support, experiment stations and extension offices are relying more heavily on support from outside the University. The Staples site survives through funding from grants and other state educational systems. “The station is very self-supporting,” said Richard Meronuck, a University professor of plant pathology who coordinates research at Staples.
The lack of a stronger University commitment remains frustrating to some. Staples center director Norm Krause said that although the University’s lack of support for the station is officially for budgetary reasons, “priority is the private reason.
“Their priorities are on different things. They’re not on ag research anymore. It’s an executive decision, a Board of Regents decision.”
Krause, a Minnesota State Colleges and Universities employee, attributes University funding deficiencies to low interest in rural areas. “The University is a land-grant institution, but the bulk of people it serves are in the seven-county metro area. … There used to be a huge focus on ag and rural life. But as people move out of full-time production agriculture, their focus has gotten weaker.”
Sahlstrom said it is difficult to give agriculture programs the same support as in the past. “The amount from state coffers has gone down, the federal level has gone. As much as the state and University has tried to pick up the load, it just can’t do it,” Sahlstrom said.
Regent Pat Spence, a former mayor of the central Minnesota town of Little Falls, said University focus on agriculture must reflect changing state needs. “It’s critical, as the population changes, that we maintain the balance between urban growth and rural communities … you have to do it through needs and by being flexible in providing for those needs,” Spence said.
The University needs to make more generous requests to fund extension services and experiment sites, Wenzel said. “It’s difficult, because there are so many competing interests at the University that, even if they wanted to support it more, they probably couldn’t. But the Legislature is influenced by their requests.”
When the Staples center’s existence was in jeopardy, Wenzel and state legislators Ken Otremba, DFL-Long Prairie and Dallas Sams, DFL-Staples, made a personal appeal to the Board of Regents to maintain the center. Though their efforts did not result in direct funding, they did successfully lobby the Legislature for the potato blight research done at the center today.
Sahlstrom said University focus on agriculture must reflect changing state needs. Funding “must be sufficient to add the outreach dimension of services,” to outstate Minnesota. “Those relationships are crucial to the communities and the University.”
Making less seem like more
Experiment stations have streamlined their services in response to increased demands and declining funds. A “Grazing Day” presentation held at the West Central Experiment Station in Morris early in September drew about 90 farmers from as far away as Moorhead, 100 miles to the north. Dick Kloubec, who has owned and operated a 560-acre sheep farm outside the central Minnesota town of Frazee for the past 20 years, attended the Morris event because it has become the state center for sheep research.
While concentrating sheep programs, which were once offered across the state, in one area may make for a longer drive, centralization allows for more extensive and cost-efficient service. For 75 years the West Central Experiment Station in Morris had a herd of shorthorn cattle; recently the herd was moved to Grand Rapids, which is becoming the center for cattle research. While Morris once had several beef cattle and dairy herds, it now has one dairy herd and one sheep flock.
Minnesota Experiment Stations “do a good job meeting farmer’s needs,” and they’re getting better, Kloubec said. While past programs may have been on less sophisticated topics — too much on “canning tomatoes,” Kloubec said, the emphasis now tends toward practical farming skills.
“A lot of successful farmers are different than they were in the past,” Kloubec said. “Farmers are more educated than they used to be. They have to be to survive. But now they’re (Experiment Station presenters) telling people things they don’t know.”
Sahlstrom agrees. “Production, processing, transportation, education — those are important issues in farming right now,” Sahlstrom said. “The lack of personal contact (with nearby programs) is another loss, but the advantages of what we have outweigh that.”
With more private funding and services better adapted to their changing communities, stations hope to prosper in the next century. Still, the lessened political clout of outstate Minnesota makes it an uphill climb, a cause of frustration to many rural residents. Although Gov. Arne Carlson has publicly supported state agriculture, the outstaters are sometime skeptical. “I’m not sure Arne knows what the difference is between a cow and a pig,” Krause said. “He was raised in the city.”
And though private funding maintains services at less cost to the University, increased reliance on it has its risks. By not relying on sponsors from business, “we have unbiased research results,” Meronuck said. “There would be more product-related results if business stepped in too much. Taxpayers pay for an unbiased opinion.”
But with taxpayer support shrinking, more business partnerships are likely. So are partnerships with the communities experiment stations serve. Meronuck is planning to establish a committee of Staples-area citizens to find ways the experiment can better serve the community.
For Wiens, the changes in experiment station funding and activity during his quarter-century in Staples doesn’t change his purpose as a University employee, or the purpose of University outreach through the Central Lakes Agricultural Station.
“This is a unique place. A lot of the basic principles of this place are as valid as they ever were,” Wiens said. “Working together. Finding practical solutions to the area’s problems.”