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Checkoff groups continue to fund research with a connection to farmers

FARGO, N.D. — At North Dakota State University, the budget for research extension centers took a 13 percent cut from the state during the past biennium. Federal funding has been stagnant for decades, says Greg Lardy, vice president for agriculture affairs.

But still, work goes on at research centers across the state, where scientists breed new varieties, work on disease resistance, find new uses for products and look at methods for protecting and improving soil health, goes on.

While government funding for ag research continues to be a concern, scientists at NDSU have come to count on grants from checkoff organizations, which provides not only much-needed money but also a tangible connection to the farmers and ranchers who can use the knowledge gained by the work in labs, research centers, and fields.

Greg LardyCheckoff groups account for 20 percent of ag research grant funding at NDSU, Lardy says.

"It's a very important part of our research portfolio," he says.

The money is far from a philanthropic effort by commodity and checkoff groups, though. The research funded provides important gains for agriculture across the state.

"We really stress that this is research that is not going to sit on somebody's shelf. This is research that will be brought ... to the farmers and utilized," says Kendall Nichols, director of research for the North Dakota Soybean Council. "Otherwise, research for the sake of research isn't going to do anybody any good at all. We want research that is valuable to the farmers and creates ability for them to turn a profit or makes their life easier."

"Research has always been a fairly large budget priority for our board," says Erica Olson, market development and research manager for the North Dakota Wheat Commission.

A top priority

That's not the case everywhere. State checkoff groups in some places have placed research on a lower priority than other interests, including market development and marketing. For instance, The Southern Illinoisan reported in November that researchers in Illinois were struggling after the Illinois Soybean Council reduced its research budget.

Erica OlsonCheckoff groups on the state and national levels are funded through mandatory payments based on agriculture sales. Groups, overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, set their own priorities for spending, whether it be on education, marketing, research or other areas.

The North Dakota Wheat Commission was established in 1959. While research always has been a priority, Olson says the funding level has increased in the past decade. Now $1.2 million to $1.7 million per year — about a third of the budget — goes to research, though the total amount is dependent on crop outlook.

Olson says much of the funding goes toward breeding and quality programs. Many advancements in wheat breeding that drive yield and quality improvement happen at the public level. That isn't necessarily headline-grabbing research, but it's something that is important year after year, she says.

"This is the bread and butter," Olson says. "This is the basics of your production."

The funding also has gone to look for ways to fight things such as Fusarium head blight, rust pathogens, and other crop diseases.

Kendall NicholsSome of the North Dakota Soybean Council's largest funded projects also include new varieties. Unlike wheat, much advancement in soybean technology has been made by private industry. Because of that, farmers have been unable to keep back some of their own crop for the next year's seeds. So, the council has funded research into glyphosate-resistant soybeans, which has allowed NDSU to develop two varieties. One of the varieties was planted on 16,000 acres last year, providing enough seed for 400,000 acres this year.

That's an important way to increase profitability, Nichols explains. Seed costs are significant, and if farmers can cut into that in some way while retaining some of the important traits in modern seeds, that might be the difference between making a profit or losing money. Another project has funded the production of a non-GMO variety.

Other research includes things like soil health and finding new markets for crops. Nichols says one promising soybean council funded project is looking at using soybean products in dust retardant.

While federal funding remains ultra-competitive and doesn't always focus on state-specific needs, Lardy is hopeful that the outlook for state funding may improve.

"It's going to be a more positive session than the past session," Lardy says of the North Dakota Legislature, now underway in Bismarck.

More than just money

Checkoff funds have helped make possible fusarium head blight research.The support from checkoff groups comes with more than just money, Lardy says; it also means a tangible, real-world connection to the problems farmers are facing. The checkoff groups pass along issues and ideas from farmers, crop consultants, and the agriculture industry, allowing researchers to focus on things that can be put to use.

"It directly goes to issues that growers feel are important," Lardy says.

He says NDSU has met with checkoff and grower groups to learn about priorities and increase dialogue on what is needed, and work continues on connecting what researchers are doing on campus in Fargo with what's happening at the research extension centers throughout the state.

"Our researchers, our faculty, the scientists at the research centers, are very interested with working together with producers to solve those types of problems," he says.

North Dakota's research centers, scattered throughout the state, provide some benefits for research. For instance, Nichols says the soybean council has been looking more at issues specific to western North Dakota — a relatively new frontier for soybeans.

Research funded by checkoff dollars provides information on growing soybeans as well as new uses for them.Research has been specific to on-farm needs. For soybeans, that has meant things like looking at whether a soybean-canola rotation poses any problems (it didn't) or whether certain fungicides or fertilizers provide an adequate return on investment.

The groups put out requests for proposals, to which researchers respond. Then, the boards of the groups listen to the proposals from the researchers.

"It's kind of an elevator speech," Nichols says. "Can you sell it to us in 10 minutes?"

But the ongoing dialogue between researchers and checkoff groups means that if farmers or the industry has a problem or concern, the groups can bring ideas to the researchers as well.

"We'll work with them to get a research project going," Olson says.

Ag research has been shown to return 40 percent on investment, Nichols says.

"It just shows that this money comes back multiple times to our agricultural community and benefits all agriculture," he says.