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Bill to fund agricultural research gains traction

A proposed amendment to the Virginia state budget requesting additional funding for critical agricultural research has gained bipartisan support in the 2021 Virginia General Assembly.

Sponsored by Del. David L. Bulova, D-Fairfax, and Sen. Emmett W. Hanger Jr., R-Mount Solon, the proposal would allocate $1.92 million to improve technological systems and employee retention across all Agency 229 bodies.

Agency 229 provides funding to Virginia Cooperative Extension and the Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station. Through these entities, the agency supports scientists and other specialists who conduct innovative agricultural research at the VAES and its 11 Agricultural Research Extension Centers. Corresponding data from that research is disseminated to extension agents, who then share the information with farmers and agricultural businesses.

The amendment requests $500,000 to modernize equipment at agency facilities. The upgrades would improve the efficiency of collecting and processing complex data, studying samples and distributing results.

M.L. Everett Jr., a Southampton County cotton and peanut producer, said the Agency 229 research data helps Virginia farmers increase their yields, and local research has improved cotton, peanut, soybean and wheat production in Southeast Virginia.

“Their research certainly gives us an advantage as farmers, and without it we aren’t afforded the opportunity to improve our bottom lines,” Everett, who serves on the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation board of directors, said.

An additional $350,000 in one-time funding to expand internet connectivity across agency offices to improve outward communication also is proposed, as well as $200,000 in ongoing support for the technology.

Everett said securing full funding outlined in the amendment is critical. “The real take-home point is that these additional monies would keep Virginia farmers on the cutting edge of new technologies and agronomic practices that would keep us competitive in the world markets, help us grow our crops as efficiently as possible and allow us to maximize production.”

Accomack County vegetable and grain producer David Hickman explained the research also is instrumental in providing information to help farmers improve on best management practices.

“We’re seeing a tremendous return in environmental benefits due to the work being done by these agencies,” said Hickman, who also serves on the VFBF board. “Extension and the ARECs are doing great work in managing nutrient runoff and identifying the proper use of pesticides so farmers aren’t negatively impacting the environment.”

The remaining funds would be allocated to Cooperative Extension to recruit and retain agents, with $470,000 reserved for hiring employees and $400,000 for competitive salary adjustments among current employees.

Everett said Southampton County, like many Virginia localities, has seen a high turnover rate among Extension agents in recent years. He noted that, without the additional funding in the state budget, the trend would likely continue.

“It’s hard for Extension, with the budget they have, to hold onto these great agents we desperately need,” Everett said. “Farmers struggle with turnover all the time, and we’re always wondering when our agent is going to get snapped up by a company offering better pay. Because at the end of the day, the ones who pay for it are the farmers.”