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Rogue Valley Growers Seek Extension Funding

With May ballot initiative, residents will decide whether to form taxation district

by Peter Mitham
Medford, Ore.—A study of wine industry clusters around the world notes the role extension organizations have in facilitating the transfer of knowledge between government, researchers, and industry. But funding for that vital work has been under increasing pressure.

Despite the wealth of taxes the wine industry generates ($17.1 billion annually in the United States alone), extension work itself doesn’t generate a direct, measureable payback. It’s work done for the public good—supporting residents as well as economic development—and the beneficiaries are increasingly being asked to pony up funds to keep it going.

According to Philip van Buskirk, who oversees extension work in Oregon’s Jackson and Josephine counties and serves as director of Oregon State University’s Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center in Medford, Ore., 22 counties in the state assess residents to fund extension services.

This May, residents of Jackson County will be asked to approve an initiative that would establish a tax district to fund extension work historically funded by general revenues. But with demands on county revenues growing, the budget committee of Jackson County proposed eliminating funding for extension work from the county’s general fund in May 2013.

“There was a major outcry from our citizens across the county, asking the county commissioners to put the resources back,” van Buskirk said.

The funds were fully reinstated by the end of the year, but the threat—a reprise of a similar move in 2003—led supporters of extension work to seek alternatives.

“The friends of research and extension here in the community said this was no way to run a business,” van Buskirk said. “They said we really needed more dependable funding.”

A decision was made to seek voter approval on the May 2014 ballot for taxes to be collected within the county for the express purpose of supporting extension work—everything from food safety for local residents to outreach to commercial forestry and agricultural operations including vineyards and wineries.

The county is at the heart of the Rogue Valley, home to 126 vineyards and 65 wineries, and extension work is critical to the development of the industry, supporters said.

The matter went to public hearing in January, and this week the county clerk gave the measure a ballot number and confirmed the wording to create the 4-H, Master Gardener and Agriculture Extension District.

While the county’s contribution to the extension center is small—just 10% of its annual funding of approximately $2 million—county funds anchor state and federal funding. The combination of county, state and federal cash provides half the center’s annual funding.

“Without that county support, all other sources of extension revenue will go away,” according to a presentation developed to make a case for the budget measure.

The taxation district, if approved, would be authorized to collect up to five cents per $1,000 of assessed property value. The total assessed value of residential properties in Jackson County is approximately $7.8 billion, meaning the new tax could generate close to $388,950 for local extension work.

While the district wouldn’t be obliged to collect the full amount each year, authorization of the district would provide a stable source of funding that would benefit the county’s growing wine sector.

The cash isn’t something available from sources such as Oregon State University, which has also grappled with threats to its budget in recent years. The university recently appointed a full-time professor to the extension center as a viticulture specialist, but it can’t ante cash to fill the gap.

The industry also gives generously through assessments to support research and marketing efforts, but extension work is another question.

John Pratt, the owner of Celestina Vineyards, president of the Rogue Valley Winegrowers Association and a member of the Oregon Wine Board, said the question of funding for the research and extension center is a matter of concern to the industry as a whole.

“We are very concerned about the future of the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center,” he said, noting that the recent appointment of a viticulture specialist to the center is “critically important” to the industry locally, as well as to wineries in the Willamette Valley that buy Rogue Valley grapes.

“We are supporting the campaign both financially and with our time as the election grows near,” he told Wines & Vines.

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