A disturbing link between reduced spending on agricultural research and Extension and emerging evidence that the rate of growth in both U.S. and California agricultural productivity is declining, was revealed recently in a new study led by UC and University of Minnesota economists.

Over the past 50 years, California growers have more than doubled their production with only a moderate increase in inputs, according to the new economic study, which was unveiled at a symposium held in Sacramento in June. This increase in production efficiency equates to about $20 billion saved annually in resources. In the case of almonds, the average yield has increased 86 percent over the last two decades, largely resulting from adoption of improved horticulture techniques developed through research.

California agriculture is a $32 billion industry, producing over 350 commodities, providing more than 50 percent of the nation’s fresh fruits, vegetables and tree nuts, creating over 1 million jobs and exporting more than $10 billion a year in products.

High return on investment

The new research demonstrates that a key contribution to this success is publicly-funded agricultural research and development and Extension. One of the researchers, Dr. Jenni James of Cal Poly-SLO, who spoke at the Symposium on Agricultural Research and Extension, noted that public funding for agricultural research and development generates a dividend of $20 to $30 or more for every $1 invested — an enviable return for any investment.

There is evidence, however, that there is a 10 to 20-year or more “lag effect” between research spending and productivity, and that a productivity slowdown is just now emerging. In the past, California agricultural productivity grew at an annual rate of 1.85 percent in contrast to the current rate of growth, which is a much slower 1.08 percent per year. The new study points out that from 1950 through the 1970s public spending nationwide on agricultural research grew rapidly, but this growth has slowed and has become erratic. This is at least partly due to a redirection of public investment to other areas such as food safety and quality, human health and nutrition, natural resources and the environment. “The recent U.S. productivity slowdown may reflect past slowdown in growth of public research spending,” Dr. James said at the event. This decrease in spending on productivity-enhancing agricultural research and development will result in a continued decrease in farm productivity growth. The consequences could be a decline in global competitiveness for California agriculture.

Fewer researchers, Extension staff

In fact, symposium speaker Dr. Rick Standiford, associate vice-president, UC Agriculture and Natural Resources, underscored the link between productivity-growth slowdown and reductions in public research spending by noting that there has been a 24 percent reduction in UC Agricultural Experiment Station researchers and Cooperative Extension staff since 1990. This is a result of significant budget downturns in the mid-1990s and in 2003, he said.

Another concern is that the UC academic staff is expected to shrink through retirement: 52 percent of all Cooperative Extension academics will retire within the next 10 years. In the case of almonds, while yields have increased significantly, we are currently faced with a shortage of UC Cooperative Extension farm advisors. In the south San Joaquin Valley, which has the most acreage and has expanded the most rapidly, three of four positions are vacant. Furthermore, the almond industry has begun to lose farm advisors to retirement, and within the next 10 years, 66 percent of our UC Extension farm advisors will retire.

To fulfill the shared vision for California agriculture and its people, strong, publicly-funded agricultural research, development and Extension is needed, according to the symposium speakers. The purpose of the symposium, sponsored by the California Commodity Committee and the University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, was to develop a greater awareness of the importance of agricultural research and Extension in California, and to assist participants in developing a strategy for promoting and funding commodity research and Extension in the future.

To that end, the closing speaker, Dan Dooley, vice-president, UC Agriculture and Natural Resources, said his department is in the process of listening to stakeholders and developing a 20-year strategic plan for California agriculture that will be endorsed and funded by the UC regents. He also plans to reach out to major food companies to contribute as advocates for agriculture in California.

Almond Board production research

The Almond Board of California has supported UC research through grants for more than 30 years. Each year, growers and other industry members are invited to attend the Almond Industry Conference, where UC and other researchers present their most recent findings from ABC-supported research in horticulture, the environment, and other areas. This year, the Conference will be held Dec. 10-11 at the Modesto Centre Plaza. Registration is free and is available online at www.almondboard.com.