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Agriculturalists try to save research center
« Reply #1 on: July 01, 2011, 05:51:43 AM »
Agriculturalists try to save research center

June 30, 2011 9:20 AM
Elizabeth Findell


WESLACO Texas— The message was urgent as local farmers, scientists and others gathered Wednesday at the Kika de la Garza Subtropical Agricultural Research Center (SARC) in Weslaco to discuss the center’s future.

Scientists have worked at the location, operated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, since 1931, studying citrus, potatoes, vegetables, sugar and the invasive pests and diseases that affect them.

“Now this place is listed to be closed,” said Ray Prewett, president of Texas Citrus Mutual. “Not reduced. Closed.”

The U.S. House of Representatives passed an agricultural appropriation bill this month that will eliminate the lab, along with nine others across the country, unless the bill is changed when the Senate considers it later this year.

“The Committee directs the agency to focus its resources on only the highest priority research,” the appropriations committee report reads.

Those affected in the Rio Grande Valley argued that they should be among the highest priority research centers, particularly in light of their South Texas home.

“There is no other lab like this anywhere in the United States, on the border with Mexico,” Prewett said. It’s “a strategic location.”

SARC’s location allows it to provide a first line of defense against invasive species and diseases that spread from Mexico through trade and agriculture, advocates argue.

Texas recently surpassed Arizona as the largest fruit and vegetable point of entry to the U.S., bringing more potential pests this way. Additionally, violence in Mexico has hindered USDA efforts to work on surveying diseases including the devastating citrus greening.

“If we can’t stop them before they cross the Rio Grande river, we want to stop them as quickly as possible once they get here,” Prewett said.

SARC takes pride in being able to react more quickly than other research institutions to respond to new diseases, conference attendees said.

The center is the only one on the U.S. mainland that researches tropical diseases and pests, one of only four that does work on honey bees and one of only four that has a quarantine study area.

The center employs 113 scientists, technicians and other staff members. A Texas A&M University analysis estimated the region would lose those jobs, plus more than 100 more indirectly if the center is closed.

Salomon Torres, district director for U.S. Rep. Rubén Hinojosa, said the effort to save SARC isn’t a lost cause yet.

“The merits are there — what remains is convincing key appropriators on the Senate side,” he said. “It’s a matter of refreshing their memory.”

The bill will likely be taken up by the Senate in September or October.

“We know there’s budget issues, we know there’s going to be cuts, but we’ve really been targeted here,” Prewett said. “It’s a big deal for Weslaco, the Rio Grande Valley, the state of Texas and internationally, as we see it.”

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