Barnes-Aastad supports Morris-based Soils Lab in annual Washington trip
By Carol Stender
Date Modified: 05/14/2012 3:42 PM
MORRIS, Minn. — The Agricultural Research Service has gone through some painful times of late. Ten offices closed last year with six more on the chopping block this year.
The closures will result in some positives for the remaining offices, said Dean Meichsner, treasurer of the Barnes-Aastad Soil and Water Conservation Research Association, the non-profit support organization for the Morris-based USDA-ARS North Central Soil Conservation Research lab.
"The ARS has been aggressive in managing their own shop," he said at the organization's recent annual meeting. "That's why I think they are getting a little increase in funding."
A few years ago, the Soils Lab was among several targeted for possible closure. Support from farmers and ag interests in the region plus the annual trip to Washington, D.C., by a delegation from Barnes-Aastad were instrumental in keeping the lab operating.
Sharon Papiernik, a former Soils Lab researcher and now head of the South Dakota ARS lab, said tight budgets make it challenging to conduct research. ARS labs are working together on many projects.
The association's annual trip to Washington is important and will continue, Meichsner said. Attendees have been effective in telling the Soils Lab's story and have a track record with lawmakers, staff and officials. They also have noticed a shift in perceptions of ARS research.
"They talk about ag research as legacy research," said Sue Dieter, a Barnes-Aastad member and part of the group's Washington delegation. "In the past, we would hear that this kind of research can be done by private companies. But now, that discussion has changed."
"Now they are talking about an investment of the legacy," he said. "It was really interesting to hear the conversations in many offices with talk about the investment in research. It's research not for our children but our children's children."
The Soils Lab is already doing that research.
It is part of the "Green Prairie Alliance" that includes the University of Minnesota-Morris, West Central Research and Outreach Center and the Soils Lab. The three are researching and developing renewable energy resources and reducing the UMM campus' use of fossil fuels by replacing it with solar, wind and biomass.
The campus received 25 percent of its energy from renewable sources in 2011 and will improve that to 50 percent this year, said UMM sustainability coordinator Troy Goodnough. Wind turbines provide 60 percent of its electricity on an annual basis.
The Soils Lab's activities correspond with USDA ag secretary Tom Vilsack's 2013 priorities, Dieter said. Vilsack is focusing on rural economic growth, pest and disease research for crops and livestock, developing American products, a bio-based economy, regional food systems and preserving soil, habitat, clean air and water.
Soils lab research meets those goals through its oilseed crop and marketing research of camelina, pennycress, calendula, cuphea and seedmeals. It researches new pest management systems and looks at better honey bee nutrition and stress resistance. Researchers are finding new uses for crop residues, organic weed control, and more.
It also could be taking part in a larger biomass project pending the project's funding.
Matthew Jenks, researcher at the Maricopa, Ariz., ARS lab, discussed a national ARS project to develop biomass research centers. The centers combine forestry and ARS labs in researching biomass production for renewable fuel use.
The emphasis is on rural lands, Jenks said. The government effort focuses on feedstocks, biomass, bio-refineries, end-use buyers and markets.
Research includes genetic improvements of oil seed crops including drought and heat tolerance.
The good news for the region is ARS labs continue to provide crucial work on crops, soils and energy for local producers.
This year the Morris lab will join others marking the USDA's 150th anniversary.