Closing an Agricultural Research Center Reflects Bad USDA Habits

By Nick Braune

As a teacher and local columnist, I have developed some good “contacts” and usually receive incisive comments from those I call on. But one person I know at the Kika de la Garza Subtropical Agricultural Research Center (SARC) in Weslaco, Texas told me he couldn’t comment about the scheduled closure there and suggested I call the press office in D.C. But being uninterested in stock answers from government bureaucrats, I shook off that suggestion. Still, I have pieced things together from some people I know and from some articles.

First, Weslaco will be hurt. (Weslaco is a town in the economically squeezed Texas/Mexico border area, not far from Brownsville.) Apparently 113 jobs — many of them good paying jobs — will be directly lost. And according to a Texas A&M study, the loss of income caused by losing the center will dissolve another 100 jobs area-wide.

Secondly, agriculture will be hurt. The Southwest Farm Press ran an article, “Dismantling Subtropical Research Center defies logic.” The article says, “The shutdown removes a valuable asset that farmers and ranchers use to gauge varieties, techniques and applications that are unique to their location.”

The article quotes Ray Prewett from Texas Citrus Mutual: “In many respects, the Center is the first and last defense against subtropical pests and diseases entering the U.S. agricultural system from Mexico, and without this protection, serious consequences could develop that could have a devastating effect on the U.S. agricultural industry.” Among the important things studied at the research station are Mexican fruit flies, fever ticks on cattle, and honey bees.

I have learned from some contacts that SARC is unique in researching issues with our largest trading partner, Mexico, with whom agricultural exports and imports run in the billions. The Weslaco facility has been intimately involved in many of those trade programs by developing means to overcome agricultural quarantines. And this work cannot be done elsewhere despite cheery promises from the USDA administration. (The state of Texas is not prepared to pick up the slack, nor should it, because border issues are federal, not state concerns.)

So, why is Weslaco losing SARC? The main problem, I understand, is that all of these decisions are being made by the very upper crust of administration within the Agricultural Research Service (USDA’s research agency) with no input from the science programs, users, or general public. Always a recipe for disaster.

None of the usual answers that the USDA gives for closing facilities, such as expense of operation, outdated facilities, completion of mission, or loss of relevance, apply to Weslaco. The Valley is an inexpensive location for business. Most of the facilities at Weslaco are fairly new and modern. There is an abundance of agricultural research needed here, and the Weslaco facility has been doing a top flight job. Even if budget cuts were needed, Weslaco should be one of the last places cut.

Everyone I talked to said administrators are hitting Weslaco simply because they can: the Tex-Mex border region doesn’t have enough clout to fight back.

Quick note: Besides the losses the Valley will suffer, the federal government will lose something — diversity, which it pays lip service to, but maybe doesn’t care about. Weslaco is the most diverse of all of the government’s agricultural research facilities. And the USDA shutdown is also cutting off the funding and research experience for about two dozen Hispanic students working at the Center and learning on the job. So much for the USDA’s commitment to bring diversity into agricultural science.

[This article appeared in my column, “Reflection and Change,” in the Mid-Valley Town Crier, 12-13-2011. The following week, after receiving some feedback, I ran a follow-up piece, “Closing SARC in Weslaco – Further Concerns Raised,” 12-19-2011. Nick Braune]

Further Concerns Raised:

Last week’s column questioned the rationality of closing the Kika de la Garza Subtropical Agricultural Research Center (SARC) in Weslaco. Of course I discussed how the closure will hurt the Rio Grande Valley, knocking out the employment of over 100 people, affecting local agricultural interests who work with SARC, affecting our work with Mexico, and drying up research interactions with higher education in the Valley. But two particular comments I made generated positive feedback from readers.

One reader agreed with my view that the Department of Agriculture, USDA, was closing the center because it could get away with it — the Valley lacks clout. The reader mentioned the difficulty getting a VA hospital here, or a law school. Because counties here are some of the poorest in the country, members of Congress and other politicos often simply assume they will lose and don’t fight enough. SARC is so important that there would be a screaming fight in other regions to keep a facility like this, as the USDA undoubtedly knows.

A second reader enjoyed this point: even though the USDA currently espouses sensitivity on racial and ethnic issues, advocating employment diversity, it is closing the most diverse of all its 100 research centers in the country. (I also mentioned that 20 or so Hispanic students work at SARC, gaining marvelous technical experience.) The reader mentioned that USDA should feel guilt shutting down a center named after the Congressional Hispanic Caucus member, Kika de la Garza, who was greatly informed on agricultural matters and who helped bring SARC here to aid the Valley educationally as well as economically.

The reader suggested I look up the record of the USDA on diversity and ethnic and racial issues. I did. Whoa. I found online an article by Chris Kromm of the Institute for Southern Studies, “The real story of racism at the USDA.” Kromm quotes the USDA’s own “Commission on Small Farms” in 1998: “The history of discrimination at the Department of Agriculture is well documented.” The article reviews how USDA historically has catered to racist big farmers, agribusiness and ranching interests by keeping African Americans, Native Americans and other minorities out of farm ownership through discriminatory loan policies and other practices.

Over the last decade USDA lost a massive class action lawsuit to minority farmers, and Tom Vilsack of Iowa, USDA’s chief, has publicly said he wants to correct the Department’s “checkered past.” (Another point that Kromm mentions: back when USDA was internally investigating its discriminatory relationship to minority farmers, it also found that minority employees inside USDA were also complaining. But when they filed discrimination complaints, the complaints were being unfairly backlogged.)

Well, how well has the USDA done in correcting its history of institutional racism? I wouldn’t know, but the biggest news it made in the last two years was its hasty firing of a black woman administrator, Shirley Sherrod, after Fox News panned her viciously. After it was shown that the Fox story was wrong (and racist), Vilsack publicly apologized to Sherrod and offered her job back. She declined.

The USDA is shutting its most diverse center, SARC in Weslaco…any other Texas closures? I’m unsure. I checked and, thank goodness, USDA is not closing the Children’s Nutrition Research Center in Houston, which seems to be important for minority and poor children. But I also notice that the Kerrville research center (far less diverse than Weslaco’s and important to rich Texas ranchers) is not being closed.

[First printed in “Reflection and Change,” Mid-Valley Town Crier, 12-18-11]

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