Alfalfa, forage growers push for research funding in DCWritten by Christy Martinez
Participants in the trip were Wyoming hay producer Dave Hinman of Wheatland and Powell alfalfa seed producer John Grover.
“NAFA was created in 2006 because of the feeling that there was a void in advocacy for alfalfa and forage crops in D.C., and there was an obvious need for greater advocacy and visibility for alfalfa and forage crops among lawmakers in D.C.,” says NAFA Associate Director John Docktor. “Part of our mission is to become more visible, and to make sure we have a seat at the table when ag issues and the Farm Bill are discussed and debated.”
Research lags behind
One of the main concerns of the group of U.S. alfalfa and forage growers is the $3 million allocation in the 2008 Farm Bill for research that was never distributed to the industry.
“Alfalfa and forage crops represent the third most valuable crop in the country, following only corn and soybeans, yet for Fiscal Year 2012, USDA’s Agriculture Research Service had about $44 million for corn and $35 million for soybeans, while alfalfa only had about $3.7 million,” says Docktor, adding, “In research funding, alfalfa and forage crops fall behind smaller, more minor crops.”
He says that small amount funding doesn’t address the real need for research in alfalfa and forage crops that private industry can’t afford to do alone.
NAFA has identified the top areas of crucial research are improving yield, persistence, determining bioenergy potentials, determining new methods of harvest, storage and new uses.
“We’re looking for the type of research we have with corn, as far as the traits that make it pest- and disease-resistant,” says Hinman. “We also want to make alfalfa hardier so that it comes back faster and doesn’t winter kill and is more drought resistant.”
“There are a number of things on which we need research that aren’t being addressed in the current funding situation,” says Docktor. “Budgets are tight across the country, but there’s a disparity in funding for alfalfa and forage, and that’s what we’re trying to bring to the attention of lawmakers.”
Grover says one of the most important research areas for his part of the industry is honey bees.
“We’re interested in keeping the funding for the Logan Bee Lab and research on leaf cutter bees, which is highly important to our crop,” he says, adding that it’s also been quite some time since yields have improved, and that there’s always research to be done with chemicals and pesticides. “There’s no end to what we could use the research funding for.”
Farm Bill implications
Regarding the $3 million allocation in the 2008 Farm Bill, Docktor says it’s important to maintain that allocation in the next Farm Bill.
“We need to maintain that language, because it’s easier to get programmatic funding,” he notes. “Because alfalfa and forage research was contained in the last Farm Bill, we could obtain the funding without an earmark, and it would be the most viable means to obtain research funding.”
“It’s important for us to get that message across, and get support in D.C.,” says Grover. “Even if we don’t get the funding from 2008, we want it for 2012.”
Should the funding be allocated, Docktor says the first order of business would be to bring together forage researchers, industry partners and producers to a research summit that would establish research priorities. He says that only land grant universities and government agencies can grant the money, and that NAFA would be the facilitator.
“After the research symposium, we’d send out the request for proposals, collect those proposals and put together a committee to determine which of them are high priority,” he explains.
Loss in the long-term
“This is the first year that China will spend more on agricultural research than we do,” says Docktor. “That demonstrates our alarm, because it seems like cutting research is the easy solution, because the results are immediate. But, it takes four or five years to reap the benefits of research. In the short term we’re not losing anything, but where we realize the loss is in the long term, when we consider how far back it puts us.”
Docktor says NAFA will continue to work to obtain the funding for alfalfa and forage research by keeping the lines of communication open with lawmakers.
Roundup Ready gains ground
As an organization, the National Alfalfa and Forage Alliance (NAFA) is neutral in the biotech alfalfa debate, but they advocate for choices for alfalfa producers.
“We want to make sure that farmers have the choice, and that’s why we supported the APHIS approval of Roundup Ready technology,” says NAFA Associate Director John Docktor. “We don’t care if producers use it or not, we just want to make sure they have access to the most recent and new technology.”
Powell area alfalfa seed producer John Grover grew Roundup Ready alfalfa when it was first released, and he has been involved in the litigation regarding the varieties. Although it’s again released for commercial production, he says that a remaining lawsuit is attempting to use the Endangered Species Act against the crop.
“Which is ridiculous,” says Grover, “because the only thing endangered are the weeds.”
Grover plans to put in 160 acres of Roundup alfalfa this spring, and he hopes to completely transition to the biotech crop over time.
Wheatland alfalfa producer Dave Hinman entered a Roundup Ready alfalfa variety in the Tulare Farm Show in California this year, and won third place with it.
“You can keep every weed out, because you can spray it two or three times, and you get your production from less weed pressure,” says Hinman.
Hinman says he’ll transition to Roundup Ready with his stands that are under flood irrigation, which brings weed seeds with the irrigation water, and he’ll leave his pivot-irrigated fields in conventional alfalfa, which is cheaper to purchase.
Docktor notes that Roundup alfalfa can provide many benefits, especially with drought-tolerant varieties that have high water efficiency.
“There’s a lot of promise with those varieties, so we want to make sure APHIS is using sound science to evaluate the new technologies and bring them to commercialization,” he continues.
“We hear that many producers are taking advantage of and utilizing the new technologies, and that’s great if it works in their personal situations,” says Docktor.
Grover says it’s only a matter of time before markets dictate the direction of new technologies, and he predicts it will move almost entirely to Roundup Ready.