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Grapegrowers in Fighting Form

Washington state threatens to gut research budgets for thriving industry

by Peter Mitham
Dan Bernardo
Dan Bernardo
Kennewick, Wash. -- Research funding and revenue flows were on the minds of Washington state grapegrowers who met in Kennewick this week for the annual convention of the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers.

A move by legislature committee members in Olympia to cut more than $21 million in state support for agricultural research at Washington State University pushed research funding to the top of the agenda. WSU president Elson Floyd on Feb. 3 spoke out against the cuts, which would annihilate agricultural research at WSU as part of efforts to pare the state’s $2.6 billion budget shortfall.

“The elimination of ag research funding would take us out of the ag business,” Dan Bernardo, dean of WSU’s College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences, told growers during the annual Grape Political Action Committee luncheon Feb. 4. Approximately 86% of the funding flows through to salaries and benefits for researchers not only in Prosser but also Mount Vernon, Puyallup and other centers.

It’s not just state funding that’s at risk. The allocation from Olympia allows WSU to leverage additional funding in the form of federal and other external funding to support its research activities. In the first seven months of the current fiscal year, the university has secured $42 million.

“By state law I can’t ask you to lobby, but I can inform you of a circumstance,” Bernardo told growers and winery owners, urging them to speak out.

Ironically, research funding was one of the key issues WAWGG members discussed during their annual meeting earlier in the day. “We want to do more; it’s finding the funding to do that,” WAWGG executive director Vicki Scharlau remarked at the conclusion of the luncheon.

Outside the room, she told Wines & Vines that any funding cut would result in the clawback of federal funding and effectively halt -- and potentially reverse -- 30 years of progress in the state’s industry.

Moreover, the threat to research funding for which the industry fights a constant battle comes at a time when the state’s wine industry is seeing glimmers of hope. While word from exhibitors on the tradeshow floor indicated few sales, the mood was generally more positive after the worst fears for 2009 weren’t confirmed by experience.

Generally weak consumer confidence, a lackluster dollar and a shortage of financing from banks will dog business conditions for the next two years, in the opinion of many of the exhibitors and growers interviewed by Wines & Vines at WAWGG, but the ongoing growth of Washington state’s wine industry bodes well. A record harvest and more than 660 wineries underlie the confidence people have in the industry’s prospects, as acreage continues to come online.

The big unknown is how fast the recovery will be when it takes hold.
While the tone on the tradeshow floor last year was optimistic, Steve Santjer of tank manufacturer Spokane Industries said actual orders dropped off in March, when the recession started to bite.

This year, with everyone having hunkered down, some hope the phenomenon will reverse itself and that buyers will do more than just chat up sales reps once spring arrives.

Registrations for this year’s WAWGG convention were on par with last year, the number of participants easily surpassing 1,000.

Posted on 02.08.2010 - 08:59:56 PST
I wonder how many of these folks who are singing the blues about budget cuts voted for Dino Rossi and spend most of their time complaining about excessive government spending, the Libs who bloat the budget, and especially the failings of Gov. Gregoire? But don't cut their budget; they're special. Just sayin'...
Seattle, WA USA

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