I am a member of the Minnesota Pork Board’s research committee. This committee is charged with making the call for research proposals (RFP’s) and then deciding which proposals to fund using producer’s checkoff dollars.
Have you given thought to how your states producer group should spend its research dollars? Not an easy question when you delve into it.
At the top of the list, should the money be targeted towards production research (how to do more with less), market research (for example, defining how consumers will react to xyz) environmental work (what is the carbon footprint of the Minnesota pork industry), health (develop a vaccine for xyz disease that appears to be a future threat) or some other area? Should the money be targeted at production, environmental and social problems unique to the Minnesota industry or should we go after big picture issues that impact the US industry?
Should we target our money towards problems that the University of Minnesota has the capabilities to work with or do we open the door to problems that researchers from other institutions across the US may have the expertise to address?
What about pooling resources with another state (such as South Dakota or Wisconsin) to have a bigger pool of dollars to work with?
This leads to the next dilemma for a research committee – do you list specific areas of research that you will target for funding, or do you put out a general call for proposals and see what comes in? Targeted funding requests lets researchers know where the funding committee priorities lie. At the same time they tend to discourage innovative research that may be the solution to a future problem if the research can’t be shoe-horned into the targeted areas.
As you can see, what starts out as a very good idea (spend checkoff dollars on research), quickly grows into a very serious listing of priorities that need to be defined.
I have been the recipient of research monies from both the National Pork Board and the Nebraska Pork Producer Association during my career at the University of Nebraska. While the dollars involved were relatively small, they were important to me and allowed me to address production problems that I was running into as an extension specialist.
Producer funded research is increasingly important for production problems in agriculture, whether in pork production, livestock production in general or feed grain production. As federal and state funding to support production agriculture research continues to decline, every dollar that producers can input into the process has a better opportunity for a big return, since the research often won’t be done without these dollars.
At the same time, land grant university administrators are often discouraging faculty from pursing commodity group research dollars. Their reasoning is that these ‘small’ grants don’t return overhead dollars to pay for the support services that allow research to occur on college campuses. These support services include such items as library services, heating of laboratories, administration of animal care and use committees, etc. In the past, many of the costs of these support services were partially or fully funded by formula funds from the Department of Agriculture’s allocation to land grant universities. As these funds have dwindled in the past few years, university administrators are left to scramble for dollars to keep the doors open so to speak.
Producer groups on the other hand respond that the land grant universities have research capabilities that have already been paid for by the tax dollars of the citizens. Yes, it is right for producer checkoff dollars to pay the direct costs of a research project. However, there are so few checkoff dollars available relative to the total cost of research that having to pay overhead fees (often at a level approaching 50% of the total research grant) means only a very few projects can be funded.
What I hope the above discussion has done is to highlight the dilemma production agriculture is in when it comes to publicly funded research. As federal dollars for production agriculture research decline, where does the money come from for new discoveries and solutions to vexing production problems? If research is increasingly becoming private, what are the opportunities for small to mid-sized producers to access the technology that will keep them competitive? If research becomes private, where does the producer of the future see evidence that both supports or refutes product claims?
The role of everyone involved in production agriculture is to make our needs known. Can the US continue to be the leader in food production if we don’t continue to invest in research?
While the overall budget of the research committee of the Minnesota Pork Board is relatively small, the results from the dollars spent can have a big impact on the Minnesota industry. Our challenge – to make the right allocation decisions to get the biggest bang for the dollars we have to spend.