06/05/07 — Cherry Research Farm gets a look as part of state budget queries

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Cherry Research Farm gets a look as part of state budget queries

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on June 5, 2007 1:48 PM

Despite assurances from state officials that Goldsboro's Cherry Research Farm is likely to remain untouched, a recently discovered provision in the state budget that could set the stage for the consolidation or downsizing of some of North Carolina's research farms has some people concerned.

The provision was inserted during Senate budget discussions.

If approved, it would transfer ownership and management of North Carolina's 18 agricultural research stations from the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to the UNC Board of Governors for N.C. State University.

It also would direct the university to evaluate each station and farm to determine which ones -- if any -- could be consolidated or downsized to create more efficiency.

Currently, all 18 are under the management of the NCDA, which owns 12. The other six, plus seven field labs, are owned by N.C. State.

Cherry Farm, which was originally founded as a state farm to produce food and provide therapy for patients at Cherry Hospital, was transferred to the NCDA's control in the mid-1970s to serve as a research facility.

Today, the farm supports collaborative research projects from the NCDA, N.C. State, N.C. A&T State University and state farmers.

Cherry's focal point is the Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS), which focuses on studies that produce a wide variety of crops, animals and nontraditional farming methods through environmentally, economically and socially sustainable systems.

And, because of its size -- about 2,200 acres -- and the fact the Little River runs through it, creating a variety of landscapes and soil and water resources, projects at Cherry vary from small and consolidated, to large, whole-farm studies.

"That's a very active research station," said Steven Leath, associate dean and director of research for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at N.C. State. "The headquarters for the Center for Environmental Farming Systems is at that location in Goldsboro. We consider Cherry one of our most important and active stations."

It's for that reason, he continued, that even if this provision were to be included in the final version of the budget, the 24 employees at Cherry shouldn't have anything to worry about.

"I wouldn't envision many changes there, if any," Leath said.

If the provision is approved, the research stations would come under his department.

State Sen. John Kerr, D-Wayne, also said he feels confident that Cherry would remain safe -- even though he wasn't aware of the provision until after the fact.

"I had nothing to do with this. I don't know who put it in there," he said. "But I told the people at Cherry not to worry about it. We have a large number of research farms the state owns and we probably need to find out what they're doing, but Cherry Farm is a unique situation.

"I'm sure it's in a good position."

He added that after spending years helping to build Cherry into a major facility in Wayne County, he's not about to stand by and let it be closed.

"Don't worry about Cherry. I certainly will protect Cherry Farm. I've done more for Cherry Farm than anybody," he said. "I don't believe Cherry is in any danger. In my opinion, unless we shut everything down, it will be fine."

But state Agriculture Secretary Steve Troxler said he was disappointed at how quietly the provision was slipped into the budget.

"This was done without the consultation of the department or the other stakeholders," he said. "It looks like one of those situations where somebody pushed a boulder to the top of a mountain, pushed it over a ledge and doesn't want to take responsibility for the damage it's done below."

And with agribusiness sitting as the state's No. 1 industry with an economic contribution of about $68 billion last year, he doesn't think the General Assembly should be meddling with a good thing.

"We don't think it's a good idea at all. It just doesn't make sense," he said. "This relationship between the university and the department has been going on for over 70 years. These research stations are strategically located all over North Carolina."

According to Sen. A.B. Swindell, D-Nash, though, this idea is one that has been around for a while and in fact was the subject of a recent fiscal analysis. He indicated that the addition to the budget stemmed from discussions held by senior Senate chairmen and N.C. State officials -- though Leath contends the university was not pushing for the provision.

"We did not ask for it, but if the General Assembly wants us to manage the research stations, we will, and we'll do a good job of it. We are certainly capable," Leath said.

Swindell is the senior chairman on the education/higher education and appropriations on education/higher education committees. He also is a vice-chairman on the agriculture/environment/natural resources committee.

Even though it's not in his district, he added, he does have an interest in the Upper Coastal Plain farm in Edgecombe County. Others nearby include Kinston, Clayton, Clinton, Castle Hayne, Oxford and Whiteville.

"It's been something that's been talked about," Swindell said. "It has been something N.C. State has talked about.

"I do have some reservations about it, but I think this is about a research university and that's where the research is done. It was not done in any political vein whatsoever.

"At least it's a fair opportunity to take a look at them. It's not something in any way meant to just shut them down."

He said it was his understanding that North Carolina has more research farms than any other state and that it is the only state with this kind of partnership.

Representatives in the House, however, including Reps. Louis Pate, R-Wayne, and Van Braxton, D-Lenoir, were upset when they found out about the provision. Both serve on the agriculture committee -- Braxton as a vice chairman.

It is, he said Monday, one of the reasons he was planning to vote against the Senate's budget.

"They need to stay under the department of agriculture and be run just the way they are, helping farmers and doing research," Braxton said. "North Carolina is losing family farms and if we keep doing stupid things like this, we'll lose even more."