Will budget cuts force closure of local Research Station?

Published 10:32 pm Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The LSU AgCenter Southeast Research Station, which has faced some recent budget concerns, has survived a planned closure this year but is still “on the bubble.”

Of the 16 research stations the AgCenter operates, the Franklinton station was one of the four or five slated for closure this year, Mike McCormick, resident coordinator, said.

“Because of some local support and some of the good work our coworkers are doing here, they postponed that at least for a year or so,” he said. “We’ll just have to see what the budget does and if it would allow us to stay open for a few more years.”

McCormick said he has sent proposals to AgCenter administrators detailing a possible change in the direction of the station. The new direction would deemphasize dairy a bit and bring in other livestock options that would allow it to serve its Northshore-area clientele, he said.

As the Louisiana Legislature begins its session April 8 with the state in a budget deficit, bad news could be in store for the station if any more cuts are made, McCormick said. Since the station is “barely funded well enough to stay open right now,” he said, a 20 percent cut on top of the 30 percent reduction that has already been implemented would close down the facility.

“So we’re just sort of on the bubble, like they say in the NCAA basketball tournament,” he said. “We’re hoping we can just kind of go year to year for two or three years until the budget improves and then downsize the number of people that work here probably 50 percent and kind of change our scope and direction a little bit and survive. But we don’t know how that’s going to work out.”

The administrators, McCormick said, have told those at the Research Station to keep business as usual for now.

McCormick has been working at the station for 28 years and has a staff of about 20, including part-time employees. The workers have diverse jobs. Some are scientists or work in the forage lab, and others have tasks such as milking cows or planting corn.

The LSU AgCenter has two different branches, research and extension, associate extension agent Lacey Keating said.

Since she started working with the AgCenter in 2006, Keating said she has also seen many changes in the way the extension end of the program operates. In response to budget concerns, consolidation of agents has occurred, but the AgCenter has been able to meet its goal of keeping every parish office open.

“All 64 parishes have an extension office that provides a 4-H youth development program and also, in come capacity, an ag and natural resources agent,” she said.

The Washington Parish extension service office has transitioned to operating with a smaller staff. When Keating began work, there were two full-time 4-H positions, and 100 percent of her focus was 4-H youth development. Now, there is one agent, assistant extension agent Beth Blackwell, working with 4-H 100 percent of the time. Keating is 50 percent 4-H and 50 percent ANR, focusing on adult livestock, dairymen, beef cattle producers and equine producers.

Assistant extension agent (ANR) Scotty May handles the horticulture side of things and county agent duties. Kate Farbe, area nutrition agent, splits her time between Washington and Tangipahoa parishes, and parent educator Keisha Fletcher works at the office one day a week through a cooperative understanding between the LSU AgCenter and Southern University. A full-time administrative coordinator rounds out the staff.

“Even though we’ve had a lot of budget constraints, I think Washington Parish has survived the storm pretty well,” Keating said. “I really do believe it’s because of our clientele, our supporters here in the parish.

“They truly believe in what we do here at the AgCenter, and if it wasn’t for them fighting for our positions, we wouldn’t be here, as strong as we are.”

With the assistance of local government and supporters, the parish has been able to meet the requirement of having at least 20 percent local funding, Keating said.

Though the extension office is transitioning and downsizing in the number of agents, the staff wants the quality of programs to remain at the level they have always been, Keating said.

“And if we are not meeting the needs of our community, they need to let us know,” she said. “We adapt our programs and mold our programs to meet our community needs, and that’s what we strive to do. We’re here for the public.”

The extension office can be reached at 839-7855.

McCormick also wanted to invite all to attend the field day set for Friday and to express his appreciation to all the locals in agribusiness, such as those at Farm Bureau and the Cattlemen’s Association, who have supported the Research Station.

“We think that played a big part in the station staying on as long as it has, and then people coming out to field day and using the information that we work hard to generate is really helpful, as far as our administrators seeing that we’re fulfilling our obligation here and fulfilling a need that local livestock people have,” he said.