There's not much in the way of dramatic change in the 2018 version of the Farm Bill from previous iterations, but the University of Nebraska-Lincoln sees a lot to like in the research priorities outlined within the legislation.

The five-year bill, approved in the House and Senate earlier this month and signed by President Donald Trump on Thursday, is expected to cost $867 billion over the next decade.

Just as most of the 800-plus-page bill renews farm subsidies, conservation aid and nutrition programs, this year's bill maintains the $700 million cap for research on agriculture and food, UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green said.

Congress has yet to appropriate the full amount authorized under the Farm Bill, however.

Green also said he was "really pleased" to see Congress both reauthorize and add $185 million to the Foundation for Food and Ag Research, which funds research projects at UNL.

While the total cap of ag research did not increase, Green said efforts by 16 universities through a consortium called FedByScience helped narrow separate efforts into a single focus.

It also resulted in increasing the cap on indirect cost reimbursements from 22 percent to 30 percent, Green said, which help pay utility bills and support staff costs on projects.

"FedByScience and (the Supporters of Agricultural Research) advocated for that heavily," he said.

Mike Boehm, the vice chancellor of the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, said researchers at UNL should feel good at a reversing trend of declining funding sources.

"If you go back and take a look at the federally funded appropriations for ag research, those numbers over a 15-year trend were pretty stagnant," Boehm said.

The new Farm Bill, while keeping research funding in place, also positions UNL to grow its $40 million in federally sponsored ag research in multiple ways.

First, Boehm said, was a $500,000 grant program universities can use to acquire new research equipment for food and agricultural science programs. That could potentially mean a new feed mill at the High Plains Ag Lab in Sidney, or new instrumentation for a Spidercam system in the Field Phenotyping Facility near Ithaca.

"The grant would not cover all of those projects, but it would help," Boehm said.

UNL is also actively exploring research to "protect American agricultural system against biosecurity threats from pests, diseases, contaminants and disasters" outlined in the Farm Bill under a $30 million appropriation.

Last year, the university collaborated with Colorado State University, Iowa State University and Texas A&M University on a $924,000 proposal to the USDA to establish a biosecurity center that would allow experts from across the country to partner in researching those areas.

Boehm said UNL is also exploring how it could partner with the National Strategic Research Institute — the university-affiliated research center that conducts research for the U.S. Department of Defense — while also leveraging the new Veterinary Diagnostic Center.

"Most people think of the Vet Diagnostic Center as a place where samples are sent to be analyzed, but it's also a center that is pushing the envelope for diagnostic tools for the detection of pests and diseases," Boehm said.

Future priority research areas outlined in the Farm Bill include:

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* Furthering understanding of crop genetics collected through seed and tissue samples.

* Plant and animal genes and how they are physically expressed through the Agriculture Genome Initiative.

* Fertilizer management and dryland farming systems.

* Enhanced coordination of research into honeybee and other pollinators led by the USDA's chief scientist, former UNL adjunct professor Scott Hutchins.

* Automation of labor-intensive farm tasks and precision agriculture technology.

The Farm Bill also authorized the development of industrial hemp, as well as "new and emerging commercial products derived from hemp."

Boehm said UNL currently conducts limited hemp research, adding it's likely to remain limited until industry or commodity groups make the economic case for reallocating existing research efforts into corn, soybeans, beef and other commodities.

UNL "can't add new mouths to the trough" when it is managing budget reductions elsewhere, he said.

While the amount of agriculture-related research falls well short of the amount appropriated by the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, Boehm said Farm Bill research helps the university remain relevant to the state's needs.

"My whole job is making sure we're paying attention to the needs of Nebraskans and help facilitate the amazing work our faculty and staff are doing," he said. "They are doing amazing things, but I want to advocate for funding and to remove barriers to help them move the needle forward."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7120 or cdunker@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS.


Higher education reporter

Chris Dunker covers higher education, state government and the intersection of both.

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