A Tough Row to Hoe for IFAS
IFAS, the state's 300 million agricultural research powerhouse, faces both internal struggles over its role and the impact of state budget cuts.
• IFAS Budget Cuts
$7.2 million, including 53 staff positions and 45 faculty positions
$9.5 million, including 96 staff positions and 14 faculty positions
Indeed, even as urbanization has eaten into Florida’s agricultural acreage, IFAS has grown — making it somewhat of a target in a state facing financial woes. IFAS is funded by a variety of federal, state and local sources, and several cash-strapped counties — most recently Polk — have considered eliminating their funding to the extension service, although none has done so yet. State lawmakers had to lop $6 billion from Florida’s budget this year and are likely to return to the chopping block as state revenues decline along with the housing market. “There’s little question that IFAS has created value in years past,” says Dominic Calabro, president and CEO of the budget watchdog group Florida TaxWatch. “The question is whether it’s creating the same proportionate value today and whether any of its functions are duplicative now that we have public universities in every corner of the state.”
Politically, that’s a tough question to ask. IFAS has some of the most powerful constituents in the State University System. UF President Bernie Machen found that out earlier this year when he set about trimming $47 million, his university’s portion of the state cuts. Machen maintains across-the-board cuts are unwise because of their impact in the classroom. In February, an obscure journal called Farm & Ranch News quoted unnamed sources saying Machen planned to cut IFAS disproportionately and had called agriculture a “dying industry.” IFAS supporters from U.S. Congressman Adam Putnam to 4-H kids from across the state flooded Machen’s office with phone calls and a stack of letters more than 2 feet high, castigating Machen and politicians “who think food comes from the grocery store.”
|“There’s little question that IFAS has created value in years past. The question is whether it’s creating the same proportionate value today and whether any of its functions are duplicative now.”
— Dominic Calabro, president/CEO, TaxWatch
Ranchers wrote of IFAS’ role in helping them create conservation easements and urban water supply projects to maintain green space and combat urban sprawl. County commissioners wrote to laud IFAS for responding to their needs, such as hiring extension agents who specialize in growth management or disaster planning and preparedness.
An organized letter-writing campaign from 4-H participants included photos of the children speaking in public or showing animals. The implication that the president didn’t understand the importance of agriculture was painful for Machen and particularly his wife, Chris, a horse woman and active 4-H club leader when the couple’s daughter raised sheep in 4-H. Chris Machen quit the Florida 4-H Foundation board of directors in the midst of the brouhaha. Machen says he never uttered the “dying industry” words and never planned to treat IFAS any differently from other UF units. In the end, IFAS took a 6% hit, the same as other units. “And if we go through another round,” Machen says, “IFAS will be cut about the same as everyone else.”
IFAS leaders, not Machen, will decide what stays and what goes within the institute. IFAS’ expanding roles just make that task harder, says Jimmy Cheek, UF’s senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources.
Cheek spent much of this past legislative session — as he often does — explaining why IFAS is as relevant today as ever. Even with fewer farms on fewer acres, the market value of Florida’s agricultural crops is growing. Agriculture has jockeyed back and forth in recent years with home building as Florida’s second-largest industry behind tourism. The housing bust has ag in the No. 2 spot again — a bright spot in the otherwise lagging economy. Farm organizations say that IFAS research, such as genetic breeding for insect- or virus-resistant crops, keeps the state’s farmers competitive on a global scale.
At the same time, IFAS scientists work on problems facing urban Floridians. IFAS entomologist Nan-Yao Su in the Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center is one of the world’s leading experts on termites, including the highly aggressive Formosan “super termite” that’s been spreading throughout the Southeast. IFAS nutrition professor Lynn Bailey is credited with linking folate — now recommended as a supplement for all pregnant women — to the prevention of birth defects.
Increasingly, IFAS scientists also work on issues at the interface of agricultural and urban Florida, from bio-energy research to carbon sequestration to water supply. IFAS microbiology professor Lonnie Ingram developed one of the more promising biofuel efforts under way in Florida — a process that turns biomass such as yard waste into cellulosic ethanol.
Ecologist Stephen Mulkey says shifting priorities at IFAS have helped convince him to leave the University of Florida.
[Photo: Jeffrey Camp]
But this new, hybrid IFAS has had trouble taking root. Natural-resources faculty say conservation-oriented fields have considerably less clout than commodity-oriented disciplines. In the latest round of budget cuts, for example, IFAS eliminated funding for research and outreach/extension in the School of Natural Resources and Environment. The former director of research and outreach for the school, UF ecologist Stephen Mulkey, also served as science adviser to the state’s Century Commission and helped convince Gov. Charlie Crist and other state leaders to commit to reducing Florida’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Mulkey saw IFAS in a key role of communicating climate-change science to the public and helping Florida prepare for rising seas and other impacts. With the funding cuts, “the outreach mission that I deemed so important has been discontinued entirely.”
In the end, state budget cuts mean more research programs will have to depend on outside funding, says Mark R. McLellan, IFAS’ dean for research and director of the Florida Agricultural Experiment Station. That’s good news for professors like Jones, whose Program for Resource Efficient Communities uses almost no state money but generates income with continuing education courses, book sales and consulting. Mulkey says it is bad news for teaching and outreach; he says the shifting priorities have helped convince him to leave UF for a position at the University of Idaho.
Machen and Cheek say teaching will remain a priority at IFAS, which includes the fourth-largest college at UF, the 5,000-student College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, the largest transfer college on campus because it offers the only agriculture degree in Florida.
As for turf wars over turf grass and the changing politics of a changing climate: “Difference of opinion is a hallmark of a university,” says Machen. “But the implication, hopefully, is that science will dictate which initiatives take hold.”