Part 2: Public funding for agricultural R&D continues to decrease

This month I had the pleasure of attending the 2017 North Central Extension & Research Activity (NCERA-101) annual meeting. It was an excellent opportunity to meet with many leading plant science researchers from universities, institutions and corporations in the U.S. and Canada. Over the course of two intense days I was able to obtain research updates as well as share ideas and thoughts on where we all think the industry is headed and what we each need to do to get us there.


NCERA-101 is a USDA committee organized to help plant scientists understand how to use controlled environment technology effectively and consistently. It evolved from a group of plant scientists in the American Society for Horticultural Science, who in 1969 began discussing how to effectively use growth chambers to ensure consistent and comparable growth data among laboratories.

If you would like to meet many of these researchers as well as other leaders from the CEA industry make plans to attend the 2017 International Congress on Controlled Environment Agriculture hosted by Foundation for the Development of Controlled Environment Agriculture (FDCEA).


It was also during this trip that I had a chance to read an article I had printed and saved for my next long flight. The article was from USDA’s Economic Research Service. It was released March 15, 2017, and is titled “U.S. Agricultural R&D in an Era of Falling Public Funding.” Kind of crazy, I’m sitting with a group of smart people who (for the most part) are excited about their work and excited about the difference they feel their work is making. At the same time, they all know they will continue to struggle to receive financial support for their research and extension efforts.

Article highlights:

  • Unlike in many other parts of the U.S. economy, the public sector rather than the private sector has historically been the dominant player in conducting the research and development (R&D) used by agriculture. The U.S. public sector has been the largest performer of agriculture R&D worldwide.
  • Between 1970 and 2008, the share of total food and agriculture R&D conducted in the U.S. by the public sector was relatively stable at about 50 percent. By 2013 that share had dropped to 30 percent.
  • Historically, the federal government took a prominent role in producing new innovations and technologies for agriculture because U.S. farmers did not have the means to conduct formal R&D.

I have had a wide variety of experiences in small (sometimes family-owned) horticultural and agricultural businesses. I have seen firsthand the importance of public-sector research. When I was at OHP, the company relied on the work being done by leading U.S. entomologists and pathologists to help educate growers on the implementation and successful use of IPM programs. When I was at Grodan I saw how the work of extension programs at land-grant universities like Cornell University, the University of Florida and the University of Arizona helped to teach and educate growers in the fundamentals of commercial hydroponics. Now that I am a co-owner and general manager at Hort Americas we rely on the horticultural lighting researchers at Michigan State, North Carolina State and other highly credible universities to help us continue to build a science-based foundation that steers product decisions and recommendations for all our customers.

Regardless of where I have been throughout my career or how I interacted with those people conducting public-sector research, there has always been one thing in common. Their work has helped each of those businesses grow. Sometimes this was a direct effect, but often times it was an indirect effect. These effects have been studied. Economists have noted several reasons why the production of knowledge via public-sector efforts creates positive effects and cannot be easily replaced by private-sector efforts:

1. Knowledge may have social benefits that are difficult to capture in a market.

2. Knowledge builds on itself so that the pace of discovery is faster when knowledge is freely available.

3. Knowledge may have applications outside the domain of the discoverer’s expertise.

As I return home what was already obvious becomes even more so to me. Public-sector research is extremely important to those of us in niche industries like horticulture (even more niche commercial hydroponic crop production). It is up to us to insure that funding for these programs does not completely dry up (see new ideas for the Farm Bill) and that we make our voices heard through our industry associations and local politicians.

As the founder and sole owner of Urban Ag News, I will commit to continue to do our part. The changes we are making at UAN will make access to this information easier and we will do our best to communicate the industry’s needs with those who can either do the research or help ensure our voices are heard.

3 thoughts on “Part 2: Public funding for agricultural R&D continues to decrease

  1. Very nice article! As a researcher, I try to do my best in hydroponic production of specialty crops but we do need funding to continue. I am glad you are making the effort to make our voice heard!

    1. Genhua:
      You and others are doing great work….now we just need to build better bridges for communication.
      It would be great if growers and researchers worked closer together…I am convinced that this would accelerate the growth of our small niche industry.

  2. It is shameful that public funds are being diverted from such exciting new technologies but we need not be discouraged because the advances are of a nature that will make commercial viability inevitable. The public sector, especially the feds, have their own sick reasons for trying to subvert this movement. Screw them…….and the horse they rode in on. Let’s do this…..in spite of them!

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