Morris soil lab’s backers making their voices heard

By Carol Stender

MORRIS, Minn. — Sue Dieter is a regular on the Barnes-Aastad Association’s annual lobbying trip to Washington, D.C.

Dieter says the atmosphere on Capitol Hill was different this year.

"This is an especially challenging budget year," Dieter told Barnes-Aastad members last week at their annual meeting in Morris. "Almost all federal agencies are in for cuts. And any discussion on earmarks is contentious."


Barnes-Aastad is a support organization for the Morris-based USDA-ARS North Central Soils Research Lab. The six members who made the trek had one purpose in Washington: They want to restore the lab’s $3 million in funding.

The soils lab is one of 11 that could close if President George W. Bush’s proposed budget passes. The chances of that appear slim.

"This is an election year, so it’s questionable whether there will be a budget passed before the election," said Barnes-Aastad secretary and lobby delegation member Dan Perkins. "We are in a wait and see point right now, but we aren’t suggesting we will hear anything soon on the funding."

Former soils lab director Chuck Onstad said the group must remain vigilant despite a change in administration after November.

The group met with North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota congressional delegations, ARS officials and Office of Management and Budget representatives. Minnesota Sens. Norm Coleman and Amy Klobuchar and Seventh District Congressman Collin Peterson plus South Dakota Senator Tim Johnson have submitted budget restoration requests to the appropriations committee for lab funding.

Perkins called the lab closure proposal unprecedented. Although there have been calls for lab closures in the past, there have never been this many in past proposals.

The proposal could get the lab’s work greater notice, Onstad said. Two ARS labs in Sydney, Mont., and Mandan, N.D. were slated for closure at one time but both were refunded. After funding was reinstated, the Mandan lab received additional funding and was able to double its building size for more project work.

"It happened because of the attention they got," Onstad said. "I’m not saying we could double in size but history has shown that when the attention increases, things can happen. Right now, we still need to continue to raise our voices."


Restoring the budget isn’t enough, Perkins said.

"From this point on, though, we need to flourish," Perkins said. "Restoring the budget just puts us back in business. We need to flourish and we need to get more flexible. We need to be looking at the initiatives set up by the president."

The soils lab has had flat funding for the last five years with 90 percent of the budget tied up in fixed costs, Dieter said in a delegation written report. Fixed costs will make up all of the lab’s budget in the next two years unless it can obtain additional funding. ARS officials suggested working on 2010 budget proposals now to align the lab with the presidential priorities and regain stability in the lab’s funding.

"In the past, we’ve come in at the tail end of a budget process, but now we need to get there early and get our proposals in at the beginning of the process," Perkins said.

Priority areas established in the president’s proposed 2009 budget include food safety; obesity prevention; water reuse in agricultural systems; crop and animal production; agricultural genomics, germplasm and collections; bioenergy and bioproducts; library and information services; and bee colony collapse disorder.

The soils lab is part of a research triangle with the University of Minnesota-Morris, West Central Research and Outreach Center and the soils lab, Perkins said. The three are collaborating on renewable energy projects including the biomass gasification system and renewable fuel sources for the UM-M campus.

WCROC interim director Jerry Wright said the soils lab is an important part of the research triangle. While the center is working on wind to hydrogen renewable energy projects, it’s closely involved with UM-M’s biomass gasification system. The soils lab is monitoring the effects of biomass on cropping systems, carbon footprints and non-food crops that can produce oil needed for renewable energy.

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