Alan Guebert: Visionary genius, short-sighted fools
January 28, 2013
Last October, several University of Illinois alums sent a letter "to encourage [me] to … join [them] by making a contribution to a scholarship fund that has a personal meaning to you."
What, I toss a pebble-sized check into the Big U's pond and that "C" in Math 111 nearly 40 years ago morphs into a "B"? No, but the numbers meant to motivate me became a pebble in my shoe.
"When we were freshmen," my contemporaries wrote, "our in-state tuition was just $248 a semester" because "(a)t that time, the State provided 49 percent of funding to [the university]."
"Over the years," however, "the University has had to rely on raising tuition to offset the declining level of State support, now only 12 percent."
Illinois' choice to virtually abandon its public universities means students pick up most of the tuition tab today. It's huge: one semester at U of I's ag college now costs $7,090, or 28.5 times what I paid as a fresh-off-the-farm kid in Aug. 1973.
Take that $14,180 annual tuition, add in books, bacon and, ah, liquids, and a year there now approaches $30k.
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States play the same shrinking role in their public universities' ag research budgets. A generation ago, most spent generously on their Land Grant universities and ag experiment stations, a nationally-integrated system of research and education that was founded, hand-in-glove, with the Department of Agriculture in 1862.
Today, however, the funding level is embarrassingly small. For example, 30 years ago two-thirds of all funding for the University of California's Ag Experiment Station came from the state; today California pays but 15 percent.
That's shameful for the nation's biggest ag state – and it's pretty much the norm for every state nationwide.
Overall federal spending for U.S. ag research and development, while not falling, has stagnated in the last decade even as private ag research funding has exploded.
According to a Dec. 2012 report from the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, the feds spent $3.8 billion on ag research in 2009 while industry spent a staggering $8.7 billion.
Private R&D is important, certainly, the report rightly notes, but the bulk of the money is "dedicated to commodity and high-value crop production … specifically to the development of improved seeds and crop protection chemicals for the most lucrative global markets …"
In fact, "In 2011, the six largest multinational companies with significant agriculture focus invested nearly $6 billion globally in R&D for these two product categories" out of $14 billion spent on all American-sourced ag R&D.
That rich, narrow focus leaves an ever-shrinking pool of available dollars for public institutions like Land Grant Universities to address an ever-expanding list of new problems facing farmers and ranchers, worries the White House report.
Some of these "new challenges" include the need to boost the efficiency of shrinking water supplies while "reducing [ag's] environmental footprint."
Other basic R&D is needed to address "challenges" not even mentioned in the report like small farm ecology, perennial plant development and rural infrastructure, key elements to efficient, effective food production 10, 20 and 30 years from now.
"But … these challenges," explains the report, "… require a strong public commitment to agricultural research, one that fosters a culture of innovation and excellence to address some of the greatest threats to U.S. long-term prosperity and security."
How much? The report recommends another $700 million in federal spending, or an 18 percent increase in today's federal ag research budget.
And, yeah, that's a lot of money but it's a pittance to help secure the future of the $2.25 trillion enterprise owned and operated by today's farmers and ranchers.
In fact, it's just 12 percent of what the expanded federal crop insurance program would have cost if Big Ag's 2012 Farm Bill had passed.
So, what do you want, fatter crop insurance subsidies for one Farm Bill cycle or ag assurance for, maybe, another 150 years?
To Abraham Lincoln, a visionary genius, the answer was simple. It still is.
© 2013 ag comm