All dressed up and nowhere to grow: Budget cuts spike USDA/UAF research facility

The few remaining planting pots clump together under a heating lamp in the soon to be shut down, USDA/ARS greenhouse on Friday, Dec. 2, 2011. Erin McGroarty/ Sun Star

Andrew Sheeler / Sun Star Reporter
Dec. 6, 2011

When the United States Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service (USDA/ARS) set up shop last summer in their new Geist Road greenhouse facility, workers said hopes for the place were high. The facility was state-of-the-art, with two greenhouses, several “grow chambers” where plants can be grown using exact conditions and a number of ATCO units housing research labs. Previously, ARS researchers had worked out of lab space in the O’Neil Building on West Ridge.

With the building unmarked and surrounded by a barbed-wire fence, ARS secretary Judi Philibert said  her West Ridge colleagues joked that they must be growing marijuana there. Their actual subjects of study were much less controversial.

As part of their partnership with UAF, USDA/ARS researchers used the facility to study pest management, seed quality and herbicide use at high latitudes; plant diseases and genomics; and use of fish byproducts in agriculture. The Fairbanks facility was ideally suited for such fields of study, said ARS spokeswoman Sandy Miller-Hays.

“They’re looking at a more holistic approach when dealing with pests,” she said.

Then the axe came down.

“It’s been hanging over us since February,” Philibert said of looming budget cuts. Funding was in jeopardy ever since the U.S. Senate, House of Representatives and the president all included USDA cuts in their 2012 budgets. The threat became real on Nov. 18, Miller-Hays said. ARS had its budget cut by $40 million and it was announced that facilities would be shut down in Alaska, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas and West Virginia.

Now the facility’s a quiet place. One greenhouse stands empty, the other one nearly so. A line of empty cubicles make up the bulk of the main office, with Philibert’s desk the only one showing signs of life. The one greenhouse in use is almost bare, only a handful of its state-of-the-art rolling tables taken up by planters containing thistle and orange hawkweed, invasive species that were being studied before the program was cut.

As federal employees, the Fairbanks ARS workers will be reassigned elsewhere in the Pacific West region. That means they could go to California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Oregon or Washington. Philibert said she and the others will find out where they’ve been reassigned in January, and they’ll have 30 days to decide if they want to relocate or lose their jobs. Philibert, a 30-year Alaska resident, said she wasn’t sure if she’d move or not.

“It depends where they assign me,” she said.

Miller-Hays said ARS can only plan from year to year based on their budget, that it’s unclear whether they’ll return to Alaska.

“We don’t know what the future will bring,” Miller-Hays said.

In addition to the Fairbanks greenhouse, ARS had an experimental farm in Palmer and a fisheries research center in Kodiak. ARS will suspend research at all locations. Philibert said she wasn’t sure what would happen to the new greenhouse, which is owned by the USDA and sits on land leased by a private party. For Philibert, the new facility represents a wasted opportunity. She feels people are misguided when they cheer the loss of jobs in the federal sector.

“I heard on the radio the other day, they were talking about how they eliminated 20,000 federal jobs. That’s us.”

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