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Oregon Wine Education May Be Severed

Industry asked to rally to avert catastrophic cut for OSU faculty, research and outreach

by Peter Mitham
oregon state university
Viticulture and enology research at Oregon State University would be cut drastically if proposed budget cuts to the College of Agricultural Sciences are realized.
Corvallis, Ore.Oregon State University is hoping for a last-minute New York-style success in its fight to stave off cuts proposed to the budget for its College of Agricultural Sciences.

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber has told Dean Sonny Ramaswamy to prepare for a cut of 20% in state funding to the College of Agricultural Sciences, the charter college of Oregon State. The funding cut would eliminate $20 million from the college’s budget, prompt the elimination of 35 faculty positions and 40 to 50 staff. It would also compound a cut of 15% in 2009, contributing to an overall reduction of professorial positions at the college of about a third since 2008. The current roster is approximately 200.

“I’m looking at eliminating an additional 35 professorial positions and another 40 to 50 staff positions,” Ramaswamy told Wines & Vines Thursday. He was on the road back to Corvallis from the state capital in Salem, where he had met with agriculture and natural resource lobbyists.

Ramaswamy said the college is asking the legislature to restore $12 million to its budget when it votes later this month. Combined with tuition fee increases, this would virtually negate the effect of budget cuts.

The full 20% cut to the college’s budget would have a direct, dramatic effect on the schools operations. “My college is particularly driven by research and outreach. The research and outreach budget constitutes about 92%-93% of my budget,” Ramaswamy said. “I’ll have to eliminate— wholesale—programs, and permanently shut down things including the viticulture and enology areas.”

The cuts, if passed, will also make it harder to retain students and faculty. Already, Ramaswamy regularly has to fend off efforts by other institutions to poach faculty, including those in the viticulture and enology areas. (Two years ago, OSU lost award-winning associate professor Dr. James Kennedy to the Australian Wine Research Institute, largely because its research program was better funded; see “U.S. Researcher Moves Down Under”.)

“Faculty will start realizing, ‘Well, maybe I should go somewhere else,’ so we start hemorrhaging more,” Ramaswamy predicted.

The good news is that there have been signs the governor supports the idea of adding back $12 million to the budget—if cash can be found elsewhere. Ramaswamy hopes the economic importance to the state of agriculture, as well as forestry and food processing activities, will encourage the hunt for dollars.

Call for action from industry

“What we want people to do is really contact their legislators and talk to them about the importance, because this is about jobs and the economy,” he said. Ramaswamy estimated the College of Agricultural Sciences supports 2,300 direct jobs and $190 million in economic activity. The sectors it supports contribute about $48 billion to the state’s $165 billion GDP, from forestry through food processing and agritourism. The entomological research the school performs also helps fight urban pests such as the recently resurgent bedbug.

But if there’s any itch that needs scratching, it’s the school’s need for dollars.

The wine industry, Ramaswamy said, has done its part. During the last budget process in 2009, the wine industry’s efforts secured restoration of $500,000 in funding that was critical to the future of the Oregon Wine Research Institute. Ramaswamy, following his arrival from Purdue University in Indiana later that year, oversaw arrangements that made better use of state funding in combination with $2 million in industry funding and hired Dr. Neil Shay to direct the institute.

“That $500,000, unfortunately, has been eaten into now. It’s only $400,000, and if the additional cuts come through another $80,000 will be whacked out of it,” Ramaswamy said.

Shay solemnly told the Oregon Wine Industry Symposium in February that the proposed budget would deliver “a catastrophic cut” to agriculture funding in the state, and he urged the industry to make its voice heard.

The repeated cuts frustrate Ramaswamy, who said other states seem to have greater respect for the contributions made by agriculture. Oregon has a competitive, tax-averse environment where industry is willing to step up in support of its interests and government seems happy to let it.

“Resources are not a challenge in states like Indiana. Everybody’s affected, but they—the legislature, the governor—think very carefully about the importance of the food, agriculture and natural resources enterprise for the economic well-being of the state,” Ramaswamy said.

Even cash-strapped California has recognized the importance of agriculture and its wine industry, giving its schools the resources and confidence needed to approach his own faculty. “California continues to hire, because its experiment station and extension efforts are not treated like step-children,” he said. “Historically, we’ve always been treated like step-children, even though the research and extension endeavors are directly linked to the (state’s) economic wellbeing.”

The Oregon budget will go to a vote later this month, and Ramaswamy expects formal confirmation of the outcome and its impact on his college by June.

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