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Wisconsin farm field

A farmer tills soil in a field near West Salem last fall. The proposed state budget pro

Researchers and supporters of a program that helps farmers run cleaner and more efficient operations say they were “stunned” and “blindsided” by Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal to cut a third of the project’s funding.

Discovery Farms, a UW-Extension program that dates to 2001, applies science from a “plows-on” level, evaluates and monitors efforts by state farmers to control runoff, calibrate fertilizer use and employ techniques to conserve land and water.

It has a $750,000 budget, of which $248,000 would be cut in the governor’s proposed state budget.

UW-Extension officials noted the loss affects longstanding projects and the ability of the small program to leverage crucial additional grants and funds.

“We would have a 1.2-employee reduction of staff and we would pull back some of our sampling efforts, water quality analysis and a project (set) for Rock County,” said Amber Radatz, project co-director.

The project’s programs include monitoring 20 state farms and educating thousands of farmers on conservation strategies.

“This was a big surprise to our agency partners as well as our partners in farm groups and in UW-Extension,” she said. “We never had an inkling.”

The $248,000 comes from a surcharge on farm chemical sales that would be discontinued.

The governor’s office declined to provide a specific response to the Discovery Farms reduction, instead issuing a general statement about independence for the UW System.

The Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, a statewide farm support association, was puzzled by the proposed cuts to agricultural research and noted specifically “the innovative on-farm work” of Discovery Farms in its response to the budget.

“We are obviously going to be working with the Legislature to reinstate the funding,” said Farm Bureau lobbyist Paul Zimmerman, citing a need for “farm research that backs up regulatory models.”

Deleting the related fertilizer surcharge also drew the attention of the Farm Bureau.

The proposal deletes the “research fees” of 27 cents per ton on fertilizer and 10 cents per ton on plant or soil additives. That money finances the Fertilizer Research Council and related projects researching soil management, plant nutrition problems, and surface water and groundwater problems that are related to fertilizer use. In 2013-14, those fees brought $280,000 to the UW System for research and $166,300 to UW-Extension for outreach, sums separate from the funding for Discovery Farms.

The loss of those fees in addition to a 13 percent reduction on the base budget means UW-Extension — like many university services — “will be trying very hard to preserve our positions and our people doing education programming and applied research,” said John Shutske, UW-Extension agriculture and natural resources program director and associate dean at UW-Madison’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.

“We’re looking at open positions and other efficiencies, travel reductions,” he said.

The irony of the timing of the proposed cut is that some entities that pay those fees recently voted to increase them, Shutske said.

“Discovery Farms has tremendous support from the ag community. It’s the only program of its type in the state and deeply engages farmers in their actual work,” Shutske said. “It’s the only research in this state that looks at what happens at an individual-field level when you change nutrient application practices.

“Farmers learn best practices from the experiences of other farmers. The whole program is predicated on that, and even a partial loss of capacity will hamper gathering some really important knowledge,” he said.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated to correct the title of John Shutske. 

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