ORLANDO — In 2021-22, “all of the stars aligned” to give the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agriculture Research Service $2.5 million — a significant increase in spending meant to provide for five new positions, Rebecca Larson, chief scientist and vice president of government affairs for Western Sugar Company, said at the American Sugarbeet Growers Association annual meeting.
But slow onboarding, turnover and other challenges meant that “only one of those positions actually has a butt in the seat.”
The two-day ASGA annual meeting in Orlando took on a multitude of topics important to the sugarbeet industry, including markets, politics, consumer desires, equipment and more.
Larson said she wanted to figure out how to make research funding more flexible to make sure money reached the highest impact projects that had the best chance of making it to the farm.
She sat down with Melvin Bolton, research leader and plant pathologist at the USDA ARS Northern Crop Science Laboratory in Fargo, where Larson formerly worked. What they came up with now is called the Sustainable Sugar Beet Research Initiative, which includes a competitive process where scientists from anywhere can apply for funds for projects that are then graded on merit and impact to the industry.
The old strategy, Larson explained, was for funds to be broken into $500,000 chunks for new positions. The new strategy is for a competition for funds, which she said “breeds excellence.” The result was $1.7 million “put to work for sugarbeet farmers in under one year.”
“What’s different about this program is that we have funding that comes in but we’re actually sort of doling it out to the U.S. in general, to any university, even private companies and ARS researchers to work on a variety of priority areas that the industry feels are important,” Bolton said.
He outlined the projects that have been funded since July — as well as the results that already are coming in. So far, 13 projects have been funded; some received funding about five months ago while others are more recent.
Projects must be in the areas of germplasm resources and transactional genomics; pathogen and pest biology; disease/pest management and crop production; sugarbeet processing, storage and refining; novel crop applications; and sugarbeet sustainability.
The following are examples of funded projects:
- Determining the best time for fungicide applications for cercospora leaf spot.
- Using nanotechnologies to enhance fungicide efficacy and duration.
- Disrupting beet curly top virus transmission by targeting critical genes in the beet leafhopper using nanoparticle-mediate RNA interference.
- Identifying the genetic basis for overcoming resistance for beet necrotic yellow vein virus and rhizomania disease.
- Integrating cover crops into high Plain and Intermountain West sugarbeets for management of herbicide-resistant weeds.
- Determining how to use cover crops in sugarbeets synergistically with herbicides and better understanding of light-mediated crop-weed interactions.
- Silencing Palmer Amaranth genes using RNA targeting strategies.
- Using artificial intelligence for weed identification in sugarbeets.
- Developing a genomic selection model for rhizoctonia root and crown rot resistance across USDA ARS breeding programs.
- Determining genes in sugarbeets related to reducing post-harvest sucrose losses and post-harvest storage losses in injured beets.
- Using ground penetrating radar to estimate biomass without destroying beets.
- Improving beet sugar by determining susceptibility to dextranase.
- Using chlorine dioxide to improve sugarbeet storage and postharvest quality.
“Any good idea has a chance at being funded through this program. So we welcome all kinds of applicants,” Larson said.
That approach is important in meeting real-world needs of farmers, including the 800 family farmers Larson works for at Western Sugar.
“A lot of our needs on the farm are ever-changing. And so we have to throw a lot of spaghetti at the wall to see what’s going to work,” Larson said. “So this gives us more flexibility in how we spend those dollars. So if we reach a dead end in a project, we can quickly pivot to something new, which was never possible within the USDA system before.”
“There’s some fantastic things that are happening from using RNAi to target weeds and insects to some ag engineering proposals that are using drones to identify weeds in the field and all sorts of innovative technologies,” Bolton said.
Luther Markwart, the executive vice president of the American Sugarbeet Growers Association, said the work being done by scientists over time has made a big difference in agriculture, including make the yields and sugar content his father used to get on sugarbeets compare to a “crop insurance claim” today.
“These people are passionate about what they are doing,” he said.
Focus on politics
With a farm bill still not completed, politics and what’s happening in Washington remain top items of note for agriculture. Zack Clark, vice president of government affairs at ASGA, joined Markwart in outlining some of what ASGA has been working on in the past year.
Clark said that if he were to write a memoir, he would entitle it, “Hurry up and wait: A Washington memoir.”
“It’s been an active time … but not a productive time,” he said of politics in 2023.
Contributing to challenges has been that there are an enormous number of new members in both the House and Senate, including 218 House members and 26 Senate members who have never voted on a farm bill. And more retirements are likely to come, mostly among members of Congress known for getting work done and are tired of dysfunction in the political arena.
“These aren’t the members you want to retire, unfortunately,” Clark said.
Educating those new members about the bill in general and about the U.S. sugar program have been among the work that ASGA has taken on.
“A farm bill is so large,” Clark said. “It’s over $1 trillion in spending.”
He said the work of the organization’s political action committee has been huge, with more than 200 events held in the past cycle and many more coming up.
“We’re putting members in a room where it’s just sugar and they’re hearing our story,” he said.
Those stories and that work are vital, he said, because opponents of the sugar program include sugar users like the candy industry that provides candy around the Capitol and sponsors the Congressional baseball game.
The work paid off in the past year, he said, when an anti-sugar amendment made it all the way to the House floor. The amendment would have prohibited lending to co-ops for grower payments. ASGA was confident the amendment would get defeated because of their work getting to know all members of the House and their staffs, and the opposition must have felt the headwinds and withdrew the amendment, Clark said.
But still, the fact that the amendment made it to the floor instead of getting killed earlier was evidence that the sugar industry needs to continue to stay on top of education and promotion efforts, Clark said.
He said ASGA priorities include higher loan rates, allotment modernization, tariff-rate quota minimum reallocaitons, storage loan moderation, and crop insurance changes. Crop protection issues remain a high priority and will be among the focuses for Nick Storer, the new vice president of science and innovation at ASGA. Clark said using some of the same education efforts that have worked on Congress at the Environmental Protection Agency is among ASGA’s strategies. But litigation remains a tool to be used when needed.
Markwart addressed challenges related to the farm bill and the lack of money to put into the farm bill. The status of the national debt could — and should — mean cuts in many areas, but Markwart said he believes that will require major work by the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform.
“This core debt and deficit and spending is going to dictate us for the next decade, and we’ve got to navigate that,” he said.
At the same time, the COVID-19 pandemic revealed the need for domestic food supply, and those lessons should be incorporated into the farm bill, he said.
“This is going to be the first farm bill in history of farm bills … on the backend of a global pandemic,” Markwart said. “What did you learn?”
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