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Viewpoint: Funding for ag research in decline

By Mark Watne

Our state appears to be poised for some great growth again. Our energy industry, specifically crude oil, is seeing some large investments. Even the state has found value in using public dollars to help promote and develop this industry.

There was an announcement in late May of $3 million in research given and another $6 million to revitalize our conventional oil fields to extract more oil with carbon dioxide injections. This is what a state should do to help develop one of its primary industries.

With this support (subsidy) and the reduction in extraction taxes from the last legislative session, the oil industry is getting a substantial boost (subsidy) from our state government to further develop and enhance profitability.

There is always strong debate about how economic development dollars are used in whatever form they take. In many cases, it is essential spending, particularly when the investment translates into more jobs and turnover of dollars in our economy.

This poses a question that we should ask of our state elected officials. If it is worthwhile to invest dollars in one industry, why would we cut another industry that is as important or maybe more important to the long-term health of our state?

From 2009 to 2013, agriculture lost 1.5 percent per year invested in research, nationally and globally. That reduction trend in research and education has not stopped, as we continue to cut our state's ag research budget. These cuts are hitting critical mass in our ability to maintain a level of research that is necessary to keep us competitive with the rest of the world in agricultural production. At the same time, many farmers have seen an increase in their property taxes as commodity prices continue to fall.

We are shorting ourselves in many areas from seed breeding capacity to value-added products. We are forcing our public institutions to find research dollars in the private sector, which tends to direct the research to only fit private sector needs rather than benefit the industry as a whole.

Food production will remain a primary industry in North Dakota and the U.S. Will our farmers have the tools to compete with the rest of the world, which does not take food production for granted? We are blessed in this country with a food production system that provides an endless supply of high quality food to consumers at low cost. We should not take it for granted.

The U.S. and North Dakota did not become a great supplier of food for the world by chance. It took visionary leadership, investment in research, educational opportunities, development of infrastructure, and commitment of support to help farmers withstand whims in the marketplace and weather extremes. It is time, again, that we make a commitment to our family farms and ranches to give them the support they need to thrive.

Mark Watne is president of the North Dakota Farmers Union.