USDA office closures impact cotton research


Issue Date: January 18, 2012
By Ching Lee

As part of the federal government's efforts to reduce the nation's burgeoning deficit, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is consolidating and closing 259 of its offices across the country, including four in California.

Those four closures include a cotton research station in Kern County; an Animal Plant Health Inspection Service facility in Monterey County involved in research and inspections associated with the light brown apple moth; a Natural Resources Conservation Service office in Los Angeles County that conducts soil surveys; and a Food and Nutrition Service office in Los Angeles County that oversees the redemption functions of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps benefits.

Although USDA is also closing 131 Farm Service Agency offices, none in California has been targeted.

Earl Williams, president and CEO of the California Cotton Ginners and Growers Associations, said the closure of the Agriculture Research Service station in Shafter is a concern to the state's cotton farmers because of the important work that researchers are doing on the disease fusarium oxysporum, specifically Race 4 of that organism, which has become "a serious problem for California's cotton industry."

That particular organism is currently found only in California, he said, and ARS researchers in Shafter were doing the lead work on the disease, primarily trying to develop genetic resistant cotton varieties and controls to contain the problem.

Established in 1922, the Shafter research station is one of 12 ARS programs at 10 locations that Congress approved for closure as part of a federal spending bill President Obama signed into law in November. The bill cuts USDA's discretionary spending for the 2012 fiscal year by $350 million, including $38 million for ARS.

The Shafter facility, which is owned by Kern County and operated by ARS on a no-cost lease arrangement, actually closed officially on Oct. 1, but it did not cease full operation until the appropriations bill became law, said Andrew Hammond, USDA-ARS director of the Pacific West Area. Employees there are being offered "other assignments elsewhere in the agency and positions for which they're qualified," he added. They will be given their new assignments in the next several weeks.

"Should they choose to accept their redirected assignments, they'll be going to positions associated with other funded research projects, and so it isn't necessarily what they were working on in Shafter," Hammond said.

In addition to research on fusarium Race 4, scientists at Shafter were also working on pest management solutions for the lygus organism. Fusarium is the more "serious threat" facing California cotton growers, however, Williams said, and with the state's increased acreages last year, "this disease showed up everywhere," noting that six counties in the San Joaquin Valley have now reported infected fields.

Hammond said ARS recognizes the importance of the fusarium work and will continue to conduct some research on the disease at other ARS locations where there is cotton research being done.

"We will do what we can to carry on research on these same problems elsewhere where we have critical mass and capacity to do that research. It just won't be done at Shafter," he said.

Regarding the closure of the APHIS facility in Monterey County, Larry Hawkins, APHIS spokesman in Sacramento, said that building in Moss Landing housed USDA's regulatory staff who performed quarantine inspections for the light brown apple moth and researchers who were rearing sterile versions of the moth used to combat infestations.

He said all field studies on the sterile moths program were completed last year and there are no plans to use the insects in any statewide eradication program. That's because the light brown apple moth is now found in a number of California counties and releasing sterile moths is no longer an effective way to eradicate the pest, he said. And since APHIS was no longer rearing millions of sterile moths, there is no need to keep the lease on the large facility, he added. The two researchers from Moss Landing have been moved to an ARS facility in Salinas, where they have taken part of the colony for the moths and will continue to do some research on it, Hawkins said.

APHIS's regulatory staff has been moved to the Santa Cruz County fairgrounds in Watsonville and will continue to perform inspections and certifications as before, he said. USDA spokesman Matt Herrick also noted that import/export certifications are now done mainly online anyway, with the use of electronic signatures.

"That's one of the reasons why we're taking the steps, with savings of $150 million," he said. "(USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack) would rather invest our money updating our technology and ensuring that we have the proper modernization of our technology to ensure that we continue to keep pace with agriculture."

USDA is also closing an NRCS office in the city of Carson in Los Angeles County. The two employees at that office conduct soil surveys and their work will continue, Herrick said, but processing of soil samples will be moved to Templeton, about 225 miles north of Carson. The soil scientists doing the work have the option to either "tele-work" or move to the next-nearest NRCS office, he added.

The lead soil scientist at Carson, Matthew Ballmer, said his office is currently mapping more than 688,000 acres of southeastern Los Angeles County and is about halfway done with the field work, which is completing the initial soil surveys of that area.

USDA has been mapping soils for more than 100 years, he noted. The information is published on NRCS's interactive website.

"We produce the map and the soil information that farmers and soil conservationists use to make best management practice decisions, as far as irrigation and land use," he said. "It's part of a congressional mandate to map all of the United States."

Ballmer said while the office consolidation will not "inhibit completion of our public service," the change may mean that his work will "take a little longer."

The closure of a Food and Nutrition Service office in Los Angeles "will not interrupt service in any way," said Herrick. That office, which will close by Sept. 30, currently has five employees who provide oversight of retailer management functions for redemption of SNAP benefits. Those employees will continue to provide service via "a virtual environment, or tele-work," he said.

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at clee@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.