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The North Central Soil Conservation Research Laboratory in Morris, Minn., is one of three U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service laboratories on the chopping block under President Donald J. Trump's 2018 budget proposal. File photo courtesy the Barnes-Aastad Soil and Water Conservation Research Association, a stakeholder support group for the ARS and the Morris lab.

US House committee rejects ag lab closings; Hoeven could play a role on Senate side

MORRIS, Minn. — The U.S. House Appropriations Committee rejected cuts Wednesday, July 12, in the U.S. Department of Agriculture budget that would close 17 research laboratories operated by the USDA across the country, including three in the Upper Midwest.

A budget proposal announced in late May would close federal Agricultural Research Service laboratories at Brookings, S.D., Morris and Miles City, Mont.

If left to stand, the closings would take effect for the 2018 budget year, which starts Oct. 1.

Sue Dieter of Morris says the cuts blind-sided supporters of the laboratory. She helps the Barnes-Aastad Soil and Water Conservation Research Association, a stakeholder support group. She says the group helped establish the North Central Soil Conservation Research Laboratory in Morris in 1958. The lab has 18.5 full-time workers and employs a total of 23 people. Many of its studies are related to soil conservation and water quality.

Dieter says this is the second time the laboratory has faced a potential closing, but this time there seems to be "no discernible rhyme or reason to the labs being closed," and Congress seems to have "no regular order" for a budget process where the closings can be debated or the labs defended.

"It's been confusing and frustrating to figure out how to react to this," she says.

She says the language passed on Wednesday in the House Appropriations Committee offers some optimism, but the Senate Agricultural Appropriations Committee, chaired by Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., needs to "do something similar so we don't have to worry about conference committee action."

"We are sending our concerns" to Hoeven's office, says Dieter, adding she is trying to determine when the Senate Agriculture Appropriations subcommittee is meeting or when it might bring up the topic.

Hoeven told Agweek he is working to schedule an Agricultural Appropriations subcommittee hearing "as early as next week," but it is not yet official. "I strongly support the Agricultural Research Service and am working as chairman of Ag Appropriations to ensure that ARS centers are properly funded in the fiscal 2018 appropriations process."

Dieter had been in touch with U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, both Minnesota Democrats, who said they were concerned about losing the Morris lab, as is Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn.

Said the House Appropriations report:

"The Committee does not concur with the proposed closure of 17 research facilities in the budget request and is concerned about the continued trend towards reductions in on-the-ground agricultural research through proposed cutbacks and consolidations without a clear plan to ensure that research reflects local needs and growing conditions.

"However, the Committee recognizes the need to increase efficiencies and streamline operations, particularly as research matures and objectives are met. The Committee directs ARS to provide a report that comprehensively evaluates its current and future research initiatives and facility capabilities.

"The evaluation should include, but not be limited to, prioritization of research being conducted at each facility, costs of facility operations and maintenance, facility condition including deferred maintenance needs, scientists' availability to conduct research, associated costs and long-term savings of closing a specific facility, economic impact of closure on the existing community, relocation costs and other effects on employees. In conducting this evaluation, ARS shall include input from interested stakeholders, including ARS scientists and other scientists.

"Future budget requests with proposals to close research facilities should include this information to ensure considerations of consolidation do not jeopardize long-term research objectives."

The Morris laboratory has an annual budget of about $2.8 million, Dieter says. She says there is "absolutely, without question" more value in the long-term research than the annual cost.

"The intellectual output of the researchers has provided economic benefit to farmers across the country," she says.

Dieter is publisher of Stevens County Times, which is owned by Forum Communications, which also owns Agweek and AgweekTV.