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Haskell Agricultural Laboratory

Kent Bearnes, a Laurel agronomist and seedsman at the University of Nebraska's Haskell Agricultural Laboratory near Concord on Feb. 22. Bearnes also sits on an advisory committee to the lab, which has been targeted for closure as part of the university's proposed $9 million in cuts from this year's budget. 

Nick Hytrek, Sioux City Journal

CONCORD — Kent Bearnes thinks of the studies University of Nebraska researchers have done on alternative weed control methods at the Haskell Agricultural Laboratory and the impact their findings can have.

Some of that research done on the farm outside Concord, he said, already has international importance. It's one of many studies that benefits farmers near and far.

"There is research going on there that has not been done anywhere else," said Bearnes, an independent agronomist and seed sales representative from Laurel.

Yet, the Haskell Ag Lab might soon be closed.

It's among $9 million in proposed budget cuts put forward by University of Nebraska President Hank Bounds at the request of Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, who has asked the university system to reduce its current budget by $11 million and another $23 million for the next budget year.

Closure of the 320-acre research farm would save $1 million a year.

Supporters would argue that you can't put a price on the knowledge that is gleaned at Haskell.

"It was a valuable presence in our area. It was a local source of agricultural education," said Dennis Wacker, a rural Osmond organic farmer whose land was used by Haskell researchers for field trials for a feedlot compost study. "What is the value of agricultural research? You can put any spin on it you want."

For 61 years since the land was donated by the C.D. Haskell family of Laurel, researchers here have studied crop and livestock production, crop nutrition, irrigation and water management, soil science, and weed, disease and pest management.

"We know that there's good work going on at Haskell Ag Lab. I don't like to cut, but I also believe that part of my role is I have a serious responsibility to the taxpayers of Nebraska," said Mike Boehm, vice chancellor of the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, which oversees Haskell, one of 12 agricultural research labs the university operates across the state.

Boehm doesn't hide the fact that he's responsible for Haskell being on the list of potential cuts. Boehm arrived at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln 13 months ago, and since March, he said, he and university administrators have evaluated every program they oversee in case budget cuts were ordered.

"Haskell Ag Lab floated to the top of the proposed cut list," he said.

Boehm said the university doesn't own the land, and $1.5 million in maintenance and improvements is needed. Boehm said the lab lacks a clearly identified strategy showing why it is important to northeast Nebraska, and the university hasn't replaced seven professors who have retired from Haskell during the past 10 years.

"If it was absolutely critical, we would have been refilling positions, and that isn't the case," Boehm said. If the lab is closed, the 10 faculty and staff members there could either be terminated or asked to relocate, he said, and the University Extension's Dixon County offices at Haskell would be relocated within the county.

Even if the university weren't being asked to cut its budget, a review of Haskell's overall direction is needed, said Boehm, who added that he understands the impact the research facility has had in this part of the state.

"I'm certain Haskell Ag Lab has had a net positive effect on Northeast Nebraska," Boehm said.

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You'll get no argument from many northeast Nebraskans.

Bearnes said he understands money is tight and budget cuts are needed. Rather than close Haskell, he'd like to see university leaders make it more efficient by focusing on fewer research projects that will have a greater effect on the area.

"We have a resource here, and we need to find out a better way to use this resource," said Bearnes, a member of Haskell's advisory committee and president of the Northeast Nebraska Experimental Farm Association, which provides support to the lab. "Everybody I've talked to doesn't want to lose it. I think it's a resource that once we lose it, it isn't coming back. Once it's gone, it's gone."

A final decision has yet to be made. Since the university announced its proposed cuts, supporters have flooded the Capitol in Lincoln urging lawmakers who are still crafting a budget to come up with a plan that doesn't reduce funding for higher education.

Haskell's future could likely be decided in a few weeks.

Bearnes said northeast Nebraska needs Haskell in its future.

"I think it'll have a detrimental effect on agriculture as a whole," Bearnes said of Haskell's closure. "Education is a pathway to opportunity, and research is a part of that. If we lose our research opportunity, we lose that pathway."

As legislators and university administrators travel down the path of budget cuts, many northeast Nebraskans hope they steer clear of Haskell.


Assistant city editor

Zach Pluhacek is an assistant city editor.

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