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Morris Soils Lab stable but supporters aren't complacent

Larry Chandler assumed the top spot in the Agriculture Research Service's Midwest Area in September. He visited the Morris Soils Lab this week to meet with staff about federal funding for the lab and its future in ag research.

By Tom Larson

Sun Tribune

About a year ago, the hot topic in Morris was the potential closure of the Agriculture Research Service - known as the Soils Lab - when President Bush left funding for the facility out of his 2009 budget proposal.

In the year since, with a new administration and a continuing budget resolution in place, it's safe to say work at Morris' Soils Lab will continue.

But neither the Barnes-Aastad Association nor new ARS Midwest Area Director Larry Chandler are prepared to ease up: Even if the lab remains, in what shape will it be in after a year of maddening uncertainty?

"We don't want to get to the point where there are not enough scientists to do the work," said Sue Dieter, Barnes-Aastad Program Coordinator, who will be among four members of the non-profit group of farm manager and agri-businessmen which supports the lab's mission traveling to Washington D.C. later this month to lobby for the lab.

Don Reicosky, a Soils Lab veteran and a leading expert in the important field of carbon sequestration, retired late last year and his position will not be filled, leaving the lab with six active scientists. Other ARS national officials, including Chandler on Thursday, have met with lab scientists and staff on several occasions in the last year to hopefully allay their fears of losing their jobs, Dieter said.

"There's a concern that we can't lose any more (scientists) without compromising the quality and depth of the research," she said. "If we're just prolonging (the lab's) death, that's not good either. It's important to re-establish funding for the lab so we can grow those positions back."

Barnes-Aastad was founded in 1959 and every year members have traveled to Washington to learn the ways of Congress and the Capitol and spread word about the importance of ag research, Dieter said.

The group - Dieter, Vice President Jim Wink, Dan Perkins and University of Minnesota, Morris student Chelsea Pettit - will meet with ARS national director Ed Knipling and other ARS administrators, legislative staffers, House ag committee chair and Minnesota congressman Collin Peterson and the clerk of the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Committee.

The Barnes-Aastad members also have made a point of scheduling time with program officials in the Office of Management and Budget the last two years, Dieter said.

"This is new for us," she said. "They help put together the president's budget - they're the budget hawks, so it's going to be an important visit."

Chandler said the Morris lab's future is virtually assured but that no one can guarantee that until an appropriations bill is passed, which is expected in March.

"We're not officially sure of anything but we're optimistic the lab will be reinstated," Chandler said. "But until a bill is signed, nothing is certain."

Chandler said ARS is committed to its labs and maintaining a nationwide base of 2,000 scientists working on issues such as bioenergy, climate change, agriculture's role in combating obesity and crop diseases that threaten yields.

"As challenges arise in agriculture and in communities, the agency will respond to those," he said.

ARS officials and staff are concerned about the budget troubles, but they will do their best to ensure support for the scientists in the agency, Chandler said.

The agency also is appreciative of feedback it receives from the labs and the communities they serve, he said.

"Our goal is to do the best research we can for the agency and the people who pay the bills, which is you guys," Chandler said.

There are signs that some bills will be paid fairly soon.

The stimulus package signed by President Barack Obama this week is considered a supplemental budget bill, so a budget has to be approved before funding can flow in the lab's direction, Dieter said. There is $176 million in the package for ARS "critical maintenance" and while Morris' lab isn't mentioned specifically, it's assumed the Soils Lab will be getting some of that money, she said.

Figuring out the new lay of the land in Washington, with Obama in office and the House and Senate reconfigured, will be the goals for Barnes-Aastad's 2009 D.C. visit.

"With the administration change, I'm confident the rules have changed," Dieter said. "We just need to find out what the new rules are. We're looking at this as a fact-finding mission."