Combined USDA, AgriLife research laboratory offers agricultural advancements

Future involves continued education of producers and policymakers

Writer: Kay Ledbetter, 806-677-5608, skledbetter@ag.tamu.edu

AMARILLO – The repeated message during a 75th anniversary celebration of research on the High Plains was: scientific efforts have been tremendous, research outcomes have changed the way agriculture operates in the High Plains, and the job is not over.

Dr. Qingwu Xue, Texas A&M AgriLife Research, discusses conservation tillage and other practices at the recent 75th anniversary field day and seminar. (Texas A&M AgriLife Research photo by Kay Ledbetter)

Dr. Qingwu Xue, Texas A&M AgriLife Research, discusses conservation tillage and other practices at the recent 75th anniversary field day and seminar. (Texas A&M AgriLife Research photo by Kay Ledbetter)

Agency leaders and commodity representatives expressed those sentiments during the recent “75 years of Southern High Plains Agricultural Advancements – Innovations in Soil, Water and Environment Management since 1938” field day and seminar at the joint Texas A&M AgriLife Research and U.S. Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service facility near Bushland.

The Conservation and Production Research Laboratory, established in 1938 for wind erosion research after the Dust Bowl era, demonstrates the partnership between the Agricultural Research Service, USDA’s chief scientific research agency, and the Texas A&M University System, including AgriLife Research and Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service.

“This center here – the partnership – has done some remarkable things,” said Dr. Craig Nessler, AgriLife Research director in College Station. “I’m very proud of it and the leadership. We will be a part of solving the world’s problems. There’s going to be 9 billion people on this planet and they need to eat.

“As someone coming from A&M with a long military history, I want to send people who can teach the world to produce food, rather than have to send our young people to fight,” Nessler said. “We need to keep their bellies full and need to help the population of the world be enriched and have opportunities because they have a good sound food security system.”

But that takes continued research, he said. And it takes continued funding for research, which is difficult to gain support and understanding for as the distance grows between the general public and their agricultural roots.

Ben Weihheimer, Texas Cattle Feeders Association; Kyle Ingham, Panhandle Regional Planning Commission; Mike Schouten, Mission Dairy; and David Cleavinger, area producer, participated in a panel discussion on the value of research to the High Plains. (Texas A&M AgriLIfe Research photo by Kay Ledbetter)

Ben Weinheimer, Texas Cattle Feeders Association; Kyle Ingham, Panhandle Regional Planning Commission; Mike Schouten, Mission Dairy; and David Cleavinger, area producer, participated in a panel discussion on the value of research to the High Plains. (Texas A&M AgriLIfe Research photo by Kay Ledbetter)

“We have gone from a high of 60 percent of the population involved in agriculture down to today’s 2 percent,” Nessler said. “The danger is that the people who vote – the people in the cities and suburbs – don’t understand where their food comes from, how much work goes into it, and why we need to do research to make sure the food supply is safe and affordable.”

Dr. Dan Upchurch, USDA-ARS Southern Plains Area director in College Station, added, “There’s been tremendous progress, but the need for research has not been done away with.”

“This laboratory has been able to shift its focus as needs shift – always with the focus on our natural resources,” Upchurch said. “The real value of this research is to sustain rural communities that depend on those natural resources. It’s the history and the future of this facility and this partnership. We must ensure we provide sound science on which policies related to natural resources are written.”

Caleb Pool, district representative for state Rep. Mac Thornberry, said, “This facility keeps production and conservation practices up to date and ahead of the curve, and that gives policy makers a chance to understand how the changing face of agriculture needs policies based on sound science.

“Keeping the general public aware of where their food and fiber, meat and milk come from is challenging,” Pool said. “Education on production agriculture is key to understanding the significance of policy, especially when few people have representatives with a direct tie to agriculture.”

Ben Weinheimer, vice president at Texas Cattle Feeders Association in Amarillo, agreed, saying   limiting factors to the cattle feeding industry have been and will continue to be water and regulatory intervention in the day-to-day business practices. The industry relies on the ability to use science to help inform the regulatory community about what is realistic and not, in terms of expectations.

Since its birth in the region, the cattle feeding industry has seen everything from water quality work, nutrient management, air quality, water conservation, cattle health and nutrition, and even feed yard construction and design techniques transformed by research here, Weinheimer said.

“You continue to bring change and progress over time through multidisciplinary research, where dollars are spent to answer not one, but 10 questions at one time,” he said. “There’s a willingness to embrace new industries and help us answer the questions that we need to become better in our businesses and produce better products for our customers.”

Kyle Ingham, Panhandle Regional Planning Commission representative from Amarillo, said research must continue to focus on managing the finite water resources from the Ogallala Aquifer and identifying ways to keep the economy going.

“There’s no use in having a municipal water supply if the agricultural economy is not going strong and providing jobs to fill up the municipalities,” Ingham said.

Continued research and data-driven results that come out of this laboratory are needed to counter misinformation that is sometimes used by regulators, he said.

Mike Schouten, owner of Mission Dairy near Hereford, said regulations are often based on perception, or “what is acceptable in our social culture,” rather than sound science.

“We have to get out to the general public and educate them on the ideas that come from this research facility and tell them these are the things they need to know, rather than be reactive to issues,” Schouten said.

David Cleavinger, an Oldham County producer, said that education and research are dependent on facilities such as the one at Bushland. There is a difference between private and public research, and with government funding dwindling, that will become a huge issue. But publicly funded research must continue.

“Much of what comes from Bushland is research that private industry doesn’t want to do because it isn’t profitable immediately,” Cleavinger said. “You have to look at things that might not be profitable today, but in 10 to 20 years, it might be one of those things that changes the world.”

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