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Updated: UC agriculture budget to face additional stress

Issue Date: October 28, 2020
By Kevin Hecteman

With help from Washington unlikely to materialize, the University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources will likely suffer from budget shortfalls for the foreseeable future—to the detriment of farmers and ranchers who rely on its expertise.

Gov. Gavin Newsom's original state budget proposal in January called for an additional $3.6 million for UC ANR, UC Cooperative Extension and its army of farm advisors, raising the division budget to $76.2 million.

"That would have brought them to a more stable budget position," said Taylor Roschen, a California Farm Bureau Federation policy advocate. "It certainly wouldn't make them completely whole, but it would bring them back out of deficit."

The arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic and associated shelter-in-place orders in March gouged a $54 billion hole in the state budget, forcing Newsom and the Legislature to start over. The final budget, enacted June 26, allocates $63.4 million from the state's general fund to UC ANR, down from $72.6 million the previous year. That amounted to a 12.7% reduction in state General Fund support, said Pamela Kan-Rice, UC ANR assistant director for news and information outreach.

The Legislature passed the state budget with hope a federal stimulus bill from Congress would include aid for states facing pandemic-induced budget deficits, allowing at least some cuts to be restored. But a recent letter from the state Department of Finance to the Assembly and Senate budget and appropriations committees advised the legislators no such bill had passed Congress as of Oct. 15—and Roschen said Congress might not be able to negotiate another stimulus package until after the election.

The ongoing shortfall led UC ANR to impose a hiring freeze except,including critical positions, Roschen said. Some vacant positions may go unfilled, or part-timers may be hired to save on expenses.

As it is, UCCE is already well short of where it was 30 years ago, she said. According to Roschen, UCCE employed 326 advisors and 202 specialists in 1990; last year, those numbers were down to 173 and 119, respectively.

The effects of an underfunded and understaffed UCCE will be felt on the farm, Roschen said, with impacts varying according to crop and location.

"It's going to be lack of information provided to growers about different types of practices, whether that's integrated pest management, healthy soil practices, grazing practices, water efficiencies," she said. "All of that research that's conducted at the UC is supposed to be translated through the Cooperative Extension advisors, and a lot of people go to their advisors to try and troubleshoot some of these issues that we have on the farm."

California has ambitious goals regarding climate change and the role of working lands in mitigating its effects, Roschen said, including a Healthy Soils Program and efforts toward carbon sequestration. UCCE represents the final link in the chain between researchers and growers, she added. Neglecting that final link "doesn't help us get closer to achieving those goals," Roschen said. "It just puts morebarriers up."

She said CFBF and others advocating for UC ANR face an uphill fight, given the likelihood UC ANR will have to compete with other agencies for a dwindling supply of money.

"I think this year it's really going to be about working hard to make sure they don't get cut," Roschen said. "We will work incredibly hard to make sure that at least we're at status quo, with a full recognition that status quo is not OK."

In speaking to legislators, she said, she points out that UC ANR is "more than a rural issue," noting that Cooperative Extension and UC employ small-farm advisors, run Master Gardener and Master Food Preserver programs, plus "a lot of other functions of UC ANR that cater toward a more urban environment."

One area of concern for Roschen was the future of the 4-H program.

For the new fiscal year, UC ANR and state 4-H Director Lynn Schmitt-McQuitty said they worked to allocate UC ANR resources to support 4-H community education specialists in counties. A cost-sharing plan was devised, wherein there would be a state allocation for a 4-H community education specialist's salary, with local funding making up the difference.

UC ANR said its plans to support salaries and benefits for 4-H community education specialists should remain intact through 2022-23, "barring any unforeseen events that force further budget reductions," Schmitt-McQuitty said.

[Editors note: This story was revised Oct. 29 to correct UC ANR budget figures and clarify 4-H funding.]

(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at khecteman@cfbf.com.)

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




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