Pending federal legislation could cut funding for agricultural research in North Carolina. The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed Bill H.R. 1, a bill that affects the proposed Continuing Resolution for the Federal Government (an agreement between the Senate, House and president regarding the funding level under which the government operates). This bill contains a $185.1 million cut to the USDA-Agricultural Research Service, or about a 22 percent cut in the program. The bill goes to the Senate next week, then to a conference committee, and from there to the president’s desk.
Dr. David Marshall is a USDA-ARS research leader at NC State University and also the lead researcher for the Uniform Bread Wheat Trials. His work will be greatly affected if the proposed cuts go through.
Jennifer Lapidus of the North Carolina Organic Bread Flour Project wrote this about Dr. Marshall’s work in an email to Xpress: “If it were not for Dr Marshall’s work, bakers would not be paying attention — we like our quality wheat and had relied on the high quality and performance of our Midwestern supply. But Dr Marshall’s varieties (all old school breeding—no GMOs) have worked in the bakery and in the field — the first regionally adapted modern bread wheats to be released in the Southeast.”
Dr. Marshall recently spoke to Xpress from his office in Raleigh about the proposed cuts:
Xpress: Could you give us a brief roundup of the cuts in the bill that most affect you?
Dr. David Marshall: There are a lot of cuts proposed in that bill, and of course I can’t comment on all of them. I can comment that I do support what the president’s budget had put forward, and that is to fund agriculture and specifically the Agricultural Research Service of the USDA at our FY-10 funding level. We support the administration on that. In Bill H.R.-1, there is approximately $185 million cut out of the administration’s proposed budget. The effect that would have to the Agricultural Research Service is about a 22 percent reduction across the board.
Tell me about your work with wheat research.
The program is based in Raleigh, and we are the only ARS location based in North Carolina. We have quite a few different programs here in Raleigh, but we work throughout the state of North Carolina. The programs include our wheat research program, and some of the more active parts of that program include our work with the folks in the western part of the state, in particular the North Carolina Organic Bread Flour Project, which is now known as Carolina Ground. That is part of the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association. Our work with them is that we’ve developed two wheat varieties that can be grown here in North Carolina that have very good bread-making characteristics and can be produced well here. The final product can be made into bread by artisan bakers.
Up until now, the only types of wheat that have been grown here are called soft wheat. They’re good quality, but their end use is limited to cookies, cakes, that type of flour. This flour can be made directly into bread, because its gluten content is higher — it’s typically bread wheat. So, we’ve been working on that project since 2002, and released some varieties about one-and-a-half, two years ago. And that project is continuing on and doing quite well.
The North Carolina Bread Flour Project came into being as a result of these varieties being developed and distributed.
Does development of North Carolina wheat go beyond better bread? It means a lot to the development of North Carolina agriculture, correct?
That’s exactly correct. The bread has to be produced by farmers. We have an entire farmer network now who can grow these wheats at a premium price and get more for their product than they could if they grew regular soft wheat. It helps with the end use and the local economy. It helps with the whole movement of local food and sustainability of agricultural systems. That’s what that program centers on.
So the potential loss of ARS money has a ripple effect across the entire food chain, so to speak?
Yes, it would. If it were to take effect, ARS in Raleigh would have to decrease by 22 percent, just like proposed in the bill. That is the equivalent of the entire wheat research program that we have here in Raleigh.
More than just bread has come out of this research, as well. For example, I see that there are proposed malt-houses that hope to utilize North Carolina grains, and there are distilleries planning to produce liquor with local, organic grain. It would be a shame if all of that were to fold as a result of this bill.
Right. In addition to working with wheat, we work with other small grains as well. Part of the work that we’ve started is to try to develop a local barley that would be able to have a higher end use, just like you pointed out. Some of the barley that we’re also developing goes into bio-energy production. For example, barley now goes toward an ethanol plant up in Virginia.
We’re trying to expand the end use of all of these crops so that producers themselves can make more money and remain viable and remain sustainable.
This sounds like an important bill to pay attention to. What should people do if they want to save the ARS budget from proposed cuts?
If people find [the cuts] to be distasteful, they can contact their two senators from North Carolina. Right now, the house bill has gone over to the Senate, and the Senate will probably begin to debate on that bill next week. We have two senators from North Carolina that could be contacted and people can let their opinions be known to them. In addition to that, they can also let their opinions be known to House members, because after the Senate debates and passes the bill, or not, it will go back to a conference committee, and in that conference committee will be Senate and House members.
What is the time line?
When the bill is being debated, most of the Senators like to have everyone’s opinion on hand. Certainly within the next week would be a good time if folks feel obliged to do something like that.