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Soils Lab likely will remain in operation but serious budget challenges lay ahead

By Tom Larson

Sun Tribune

The ARS Soils Lab in Morris probably won't be closed this fall, as is spelled out in the 2009 budget proposal President Bush released earlier this year.

That good news, however, doesn't mean stakeholders can rest assured about the lab's future.

Stakeholders, such as the Barnes-Aastad Soil and Water Conservation Research Association, have been lobbying the state's Congressional leaders to restore more than $3 million to keep the Soils Lab open.

But even if that funding is restored, higher operating costs and salaries mean the lab will need an infusion of roughly $1 million in the next few years to maintain its mission. It's estimated that, with fixed costs currently accounting for 90 percent of the lab's budget, its entire budget will need to be devoted to those fixed cost within two years.

"If we don't get an increase over the $3.065 million, we're in trouble anyway," said Barnes-Aastad vice president Jim Wink.

Wink presided over Barnes-Aastad's annual meeting Thursday at the Soils Lab.

In addition to its business agenda, association members and lab employees heard a report on a recent trip to Washington D.C. by a Barnes-Aastad delegation, an update on the lab's upcoming 50th anniversary by lab Research Leader Abdullah Jaradat, and comments from Troy Goodnough, the University of Minnesota, Morris' Sustainability Coordinator.

Many agricultural issues are currently drawing attention, but the future of the Soils Lab is perhaps the most pressing locally.

Dan Perkins, Barnes-Aastad secretary, said it's a "pretty somber time" in ARS, but wanted to shed a positive light on the situation, noting that Bush's budget calls for cutting 11 ARS labs.

"We're in good company," he said.

Despite being slated for closure, Minnesota has a lot of clout working for the lab in Washington. 7th District Rep. Collin Peterson is chair of the House ag committee, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Sen. Norm Coleman both sit on the Senate ag committee. In addition, South Dakota Sen. Tim Johnson, sits on the Senate Agricultural Appropriations Subcommitee. All have expressed their support to keep the lab funded and have submitted requests in both appropriations committees to restore funding.

Perkins said its likely all 11 ARS labs would be restored under a "blanket initiative."

"There seems to be a real consensus that ARS is not going to have this happen," Perkins said.

Members of Barnes-Aastad's Washington delegation said the tenor in the capital is much different now than during previous trips, especially regarding earmarks. Meetings with representatives or their staffs are much more difficult to schedule, and the paperwork requirements needed to request appropriations are much more rigid.

As such, Soils Lab stakeholders must continue to be diligent in maintaining contact with officials in Washington, and must begin planning much further in advance, despite the uncertainty of political dealings in a presidential election year.

"Brainstorm a little," Wink said. "It's tough times. Interesting times."

Jaradat discussed the past, present and future of the lab's work in brief comments. He also touched on the importance of the interconnected relationship of Morris' 'Research Triangle' -- UMM, the Soils Lab and the West Central Research and Outreach Center.

He, too, sounded cautiously optimistic about the lab's future.

"We are concerned but I don't want to say we're worried," he said.

Goodnough spoke as a substitute for UMM Chancellor Jacquie Johnson, who was scheduled to address the meeting but had to cancel after receiving an invitation to testify before a U.S. Senate committee on campus efforts to reduce greenhouse gases.

Goodnough said the lab and Barnes-Aastad are doing the work necessary to flourish in unpredictable times. Thanks to the work done by those in the "Research Triangle," the producers and community, rural areas can become more self-reliant.

"Civilizations don't last without strong ag roots and managing resources well," Goodnough said. "You've done great work and that work has never been more relevent than it is today."