WSU’s change in plans a shock to some farmers

Capital Press Staff Writer

PUYALLUP, Wash. -4/15/03— Washington State University’s plan to borrow $6 million against a 60-acre piece of farmland near its Puyallup research station and to use all of that money for improvements at its Mount Vernon research station took many people by surprise.

During a recent community meeting at the Puyallup research station many attending — among them state legislators, local government officials and farmers — raised concerns about the loss of farmland in the area and the flow of funds north to WSU’s research station in Skagit County.

When WSU unveiled its strategic plan for its westside research centers in December 2001, the 60-acre piece of farmland, in an industrialized area of Fife, Wash., was expected to sell for about $10 million.

The goal then was to use the money from the sale of the property for building new facilities and renovating dilapidated ones at the Mount Vernon and Puyallup research stations.

But when the region’s economy went soft and it became apparent that the land wouldn’t sell for that much, financial gurus decided it would make more sense to borrow against the property, holding onto it until the economy improves.

In a surprise announcement at the Mount Vernon research station in January, WSU president V. Lane Rawlins told a group of about 25 Skagit County farmers that the university was planning to use $6 million borrowed against the Fife property to build new laboratories and other facilities at the Mount Vernon research station.

During a phone interview after last week’s meeting at the Puyallup research station, Jim Zuiches, dean of the university’s College of Agriculture and Home Economics, said Rawlins’ announcement marked a change in the game plan as outlined in the original strategic plan.

“I made the decision to move the Mount Vernon program forward as quickly as possible,” said Zuiches. “The original plan was to split the resources (the money from the sale of the property), but the Puyallup projects have been deferred because there’s not enough money to do that.”

Jim Kropf, WSU’s interim director of westside research and extension, said nothing is changing at the Puyallup research station when it comes to the research done there.

But the question of whether any money from the eventual sale of the property will be available to upgrade the Puyallup station remains up in the air.

“Nothing’s been decided about Puyallup,” he said.

Kropf also said that even when the Fife property sells, the Puyallup research station will have enough of a land base for good solid research. That’s primarily because when the dairy program was transferred from Puyallup to Eastern Washington, land that was used to grow silage for the dairy became available for research.

Land at the Puyallup station that’s being transitioned to organic research remains intact.

Even so, some farmers in the Puyallup area are alarmed at the thought of the eventual loss of the Fife property.

“I hate it. It’s absolutely wrong,” said Ross Bischoff, 76, a berry and apple grower and a member of the Pierce County Farm Advisory Commission.

Bischoff doesn’t dispute that the Mount Vernon research station needs more research dollars.

“But what’s going to happen to this area here?” he asked. “We’ve got 80 different registered crops in this county. That’s quite a bit of agriculture. We need local research done here. We’re too far from Mount Vernon.”

Dick Carkner, chairman of the Pierce County Farm Advisory Commission, a local berry and vegetable grower and professor emeritus at WSU, said WSU is suffering many of the same financial problems as farmers.

“The university is desperate for funds,” he said. “It needs to sell part of the farm to keep the lights on.”

But he laments that no money — “not a dime” — of the $6 million will go to the Puyallup research station.

He pointed out that while the research at Mount Vernon is focused primarily on production agriculture, the research at Puyallup has a different focus.

“We have farmers here making hundreds of thousands of dollars in sales on only 30 acres,” he said. “They’re economically viable, and they need research, too.”

Skagit County berry and vegetable grower Mike Youngquist, who serves on an ag advisory group to Zuiches, said the university cannot ignore economic realities.

“The (Fife) land is so expensive that even a university can’t afford to keep it for agriculture,” he said. “It has to look at the highest value of the land it owns and evaluate the amount of research it can get out of it. The Legislature isn’t funding research in this state, and the situation is getting so desperate that the university has to do something or we all lose.”

Bob Rose, executive director of Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland, calls for unity in this dilemma.

“We hope the university can support the interests of both communities,” he said. “We don’t want to see agriculture divided. That’s the worst thing that could happen.”


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