Some extension Integrated Pest Management programs around the country are reluctantly handing out pink slips and others may even be forced to shut their doors completely, thanks to a bit of legislation tucked away in the 2008 farm bill that shifts IPM funding rules from standard formula grants to competitive grants. Making matters worse, it seems everybody from IPM program directors to extension advocacy groups in Washington got caught flat-footed in mid-September, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture finally notified IPM programs around the country that the usual Oct. 1 release of formula funds, due just two weeks hence, was canceled.
"It kind of caught most extension directors off guard that these dollars did end up going competitive," says Duane Hauck, extension director at North Dakota State University in Fargo.
As a result, IPM programs around the country immediately began meeting and discussing options. Ag lobbyists and congressional delegations were contacted. Calls were made to USDA, and e-mails flew back and forth between IPMs. How would their programs survive while the new bidding process was put in place? How would competitive bidding affect the smaller land grant colleges? The fallout for each college will be as diverse as the agriculture in each state.
A vital toool
Every year, farmers around the country rely on information from their local IPMs in managing destructive insects and diseases. With programs in each state, they work both individually on local issues and cooperatively on the broader issues. They perform scientific studies and help develop cutting-edge strategies for fighting pests in the field, including scouting fields to help assess potential problems before they occur, saving farmers money. But you have to spend money to make money.
USDA grant funding "is a core part of our IPM program," Hauck says. "It funds the dollars we have received in the past, and it funds a key position that leads our IPM efforts here at NDSU."
USDA funding also provides support for NDSU extension's summer crop scouting program, considered crucial for gathering data and building the production models that scientists use to predict when farmers need to take action for controlling insects and disease in their crops.
"It's a critical thing for us," he says. "As diverse as our agriculture is, leading the nation with some 12 to 13 different crops, and the sheer magnitude of acreage that we have of those crops across our state, a program like IPM becomes extremely critical."
Elsewhere, the fallout is clearly going to be more painful. Jack Payne is vice president of extension and outreach at Iowa State.
"It may have all been done in good faith, but we found out after the fact that it has tremendous implications to Iowa State alone, (representing) a loss of $266,000 and 3.5 positions," he says.
The fine print
To understand how and why the change got slipped into the farm bill, a little background is needed.
The Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890 created the land grant colleges around the country. The 1890 revision established new land grant colleges in 17 predominantly Africa-American regions of the South that had been overlooked in 1862. These came to be known as "1890 colleges."
In 1914, the Smith-Lever Act created the cooperative extension system among all land grant colleges. A portion of that system, research and education, was funded by USDA under section 3(d) of the act, using a formula based on each state's agricultural and rural demographics. Simply put, the more a state farmed, the more federal funding its "3(d) programs" received in support of that farming.
Every spring, IPM programs around the nation had been submitting their budgetary requirements to USDA's Cooperative State Research, Extension and Education Service for the next year's work. On Oct. 1, funds were being released to the programs for use. This formula-based funding built and, until recently, maintained all the vital IPM programs now operating around the nation.
It is important to note that these 3(d) funds were not reaching the 1890 colleges in the South until additional language finally was put into the 2008 farm bill, which specifically designates them as eligible.
If that had been the only change, there would be no trouble for the IPM programs and the system as a whole would have been stronger. But a single word in that same sentence, which includes the 1890 colleges, also was changed. Namely, the word, "apply" was changed to "compete," regarding application for CSREES funds.
The change was made in the conference after the House approval of the first farm bill, before handing it over to the Senate. But the identity of the person or group who actually made the change remains unknown. According to legislative sources on Capital Hill, it is unusual to name the author of "minor" changes made in conference.
But some say there has been a push from inside the White House to replace noncompetitive grants. Enter the Office of Management and Budget, a cabinet-level office that works for the president ensuring, among other things, federal program adherence to presidential policy. An industry source on Capitol Hill states that OMB's steady drive the past few years toward competitive grants was being steered by the permanent career staff there. While they recognize that IPM programs are effective and "are doing great work," they have a philosophical bias against continuing to award funds noncompetitively, the source says.
Regardless of who is responsible, that one-word change, both because of its presence and its being overlooked until very recently, is costing IPM employees their jobs and threatening the life of some smaller programs. Survival could depend on IPM programs competing for funding with former partners.
Formula vs. competitive
Competitive grant funding, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. Competition can help keep funding costs down. But is it proper in all cases?
Competitive funds are not awarded to all those who request it, therefore, those IPM programs that have access to the best and most grant application writers (an actual profession) likely will garner more federal funding for their programs. This may leave IPM programs at some of the smaller universities out in the cold.
For instance, though NDSU serves a state that leads the country in production of more than a dozen different crops, it is one of the smaller land grant universities, when compared to Ohio State or Texas A & M.
Fortunately, the state of North Dakota is one of the most generous, in terms if supporting its agricultural economy and co-funding its extension programs.
"It's a balance of using our federal dollars along with our state appropriations," Hauck says of NDSU's IPM program. Federal funds "are required to be matched, dollar for dollar, with state funds."
He expects that without the federal dollars, the state money still would be available. But that does not make NDSU immune.
"There's no question that if we're not competitive in securing these (federal) funds we'll end up having to make personnel adjustments," he says.
Hauck also is concerned for other programs that have less state support to back them up. One extension specialist, whose state already is facing a multibillion-dollar deficit, is worried for some of his co-workers, who will be receiving their termination notices shortly.
"We don't have the state dollars to float" our IPM program, he says. "Our universities aren't necessarily flush with funds to buffer this well either. That's why we're having to do the layoff notices."
To keep his IPM program afloat, his program leaders are scrambling, trying to cobble together funding support through private industry grants.
But this, according to Chris Boerboom, extension weed scientist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, is no way to run an effective IPM program.
"The formula funding provides the stability and infrastructure that we just can't replace," he says, explaining that IPMs around the country rely on knowledge bases built around local agriculture, insects, disease and weather conditions.
"We can't do these types of programs on a year-by-year basis and have that type of knowledge and efficiency in place," he says. "These people know what they're doing. We don't have to train them each year."
The new farm bill was passed in May and in mid-September, CSREES notified IPM program directors that the funding they'd been expecting Oct. 1 would not be there. Therefore, IPM program survival also would depend upon staying afloat until new funds, should their grants win, are awarded.
The problem that all land grant universities share, regardless of their size, is that the new funding requirements surfaced at such a late date. IPM programs had submitted their funding requests in the spring, and the farm bill became law in May, yet USDA's notice that the formula funds would, for some reason, be withheld until just two weeks before they were due to be released for use.
This leaves IPM programs without funding, including payroll dollars, at least until the new CSREES competitive bid system is up and running, assuming that each IPM program will have the new applications filled out (once they are made available) and submitted in time for CSREES peer group consideration.
Ralph Otto, associate administrator of CSREES, says they are expediting this.
"We will push them as fast as we humanly can, but my guess is going to be that, having said that, we won't have any of the proposals or grants finalized until well past the turn of the calendar year, so they're probably looking at February or something like that," he says.
He points out that, once the new farm bill was passed, their first big job was to get $30 million in new funding for specialty crops out the door.
"We got everything out within a three-month period," he says. "So once the process starts, it's not the case that it's going to take forever."
CSREES, he says, is not blind to the problems IPM programs are facing.
"We have put word forth that we want to move these as fast as we can, and we absolutely understand the problem," he says. "There's not much we can do about it at this point, other than expedite matters, but we know why the universities are feeling pain."
Some programs will be able to count on state or university funds to keep their programs afloat while others are already laying off staff.
"I was at an NCIPM (Nation Centre for Integrated Pest Management) stakeholder meeting last week in Minneapolis," Boerboom says. "They went around the room, asking the stakeholders present who had actually handed out termination slips."
He learned that three land grant universities already had issued several termination notices. More are expected, industry sources say, and Boerboom predicts that some of the smaller schools will have to shut down their IPM programs altogether.
But most are expected to survive, thanks to healthy state economies and support from their parent land grant universities.
"It isn't like we're going to not do IPM extension work if these funds go away," Hauck says. "We do have a much larger program than what these funds support, in themselves, but certainly, the size of the program will be affected by the loss if we're not able to maintain them."
Being cooperative in nature, IPMs are working together to come up with possible solutions. They don't want to see any one program left unfunded. Hauck hopes the funding applications process will be fair to every program, regardless of size.
"We're hoping that when the federal government starts developing the rules or guidelines for applications to be submitted for these funds, the guidelines take into consideration that funds need to be made available across individual states, and that one school doesn't end up with a competitive advantage to garner an undue share of the funds," he says.
NDSU has been well-supported by state and university funds, but in other states, federal funding makes up a much larger portion of their funding base, leaving their programs exposed, he says.
Others, like Jack Payne at Iowa State, are trying to get the legislation fixed.
"The fix is very difficult because of how it involves our colleagues in the 1890s colleges," he says. "We're still trying, and the more we talk to Congress, the more we realize it's a long shot."