County budget woes threaten Oregon agriculture

County budget woes threaten Oregon agriculture

BY ANGELA DECKER | ASHLAND CORRESPONDENT

05.31.13 Blog GrapeVineFarmers and vintners fear that looming cuts to Oregon State University’s Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center (SOREC) could undercut the region's pear, wine and agriculture/livestock industries, valued at over $80 million. SOREC, which supports agriculture in southern Oregon through education and research, may lose a major source of funding as longtime partner Jackson County grapples with a $6.8 million budget deficit. Housed in Medford, the center has been partially supported by the county for nearly 100 years.

Like several other Oregon counties, Jackson County is still reeling from the loss of federal timber payments. Funding for SOREC is on the chopping block along with funding for public libraries and other programs.

The Jackson County Budget Committee originally recommended eliminating all $204,000 of its annual support for SOREC beginning July 1. Such a large cut, so soon, could have been a death blow for SOREC, but county commissioners recently granted a temporary stay of execution by adopting a budget that funds SOREC about $102,000 through December 2013, but made no guarantee of future support.

Commissioner Doug Breidenthal voiced support for the program, but said it had to become less dependent on government funding. “I’d like OSU Extension to show more leadership and become more self-sufficient,” said Breidenthal.

Advocates say the county underestimates the Extension’s economic value to the region. The center offers classes in viticulture, gardening, pest management and woodland preservation. Its research scientists tackle issues like powdery mildew, invasive pests, and sustainability.

The center’s impact is far-reaching ,” says Philip Van Buskirk, Director of SOREC. The pear industry has reaped the benefits of the Extension,” “People invest in businesses in Jackson County in part because they have support from the Extension.” Van Buskirk points out that Jackson County has one of the fastest growing wine industries in the country. “If we have to leave this community, it’s going to have an impact on the industry here,” he says.

John Pratt, president of the Rogue Valley Wine Growers Association, echoes that sentiment “We need the support of the viticulture department at SOREC, Pratt remarked at a recent commissioner’s meeting. There’s a ripple effect. Our wines are high value, and with the wineries come tasting rooms and tourism and investment in the valley.”

Unless new revenue materializes, the budget cuts will take effect in January 2014. County Commissioners are considering a new fee to raise money and plan to put it on the ballot in November. If approved by voters, the fee would pay for the County Jail, freeing up General Fund dollars for programs like SOREC. If the County doesn’t continue funding SOREC, Van Buskirk says he hopes the Extension can become a service district supported by its own voter-approved tax. However, gaining service-district status takes about 18 months and SOREC may not survive that long.

“We’re working hard to find new resources and new partners,” he says.

Angela Decker is a freelance writer based in Ashland.

Photo courtesy of Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center