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Three PNW state commissions working together to fund research

In an effort to make their shrinking budgets go farther, the Idaho Potato Commission (IPC), the Washington State Potato Commission (WSPC) and the Oregon Potato Commission (OPC) have initiated exploratory discussions to determine how they could more effectively unify their research programs to share data, at the same time using their financial resources as efficiently as possible.

Pat Kole, vice-president of legal and government affairs for IPC; Chris Voight, executive director of WSPC; and Bill Brewer, executive director for the OPC, sat down to discuss the initial efforts with Spudman magazine.
All three said the process is in its beginning stage of development and a lot of ground work remains to be done before any substantive steps will be taken.

“There are certainly consultations that we have to engage in with the universities,” Kole said. “We’ve got to reach out and talk to our stakeholders, the people that make up the potato industry in the Pacific Northwest. And we have to make sure that this is not perceived as a top-down kind of a process. Rather, we’re coming at it from the bottom up. We’re looking at how we can be inclusive and involve all the interested parties we’re talking about.”

Shortly after the three commissions began discussing the idea of consolidation and creating efficiencies, the three research universities, Washington State, Oregon State and Idaho began similar discussions, Voight said.

Also involved in the discussions is USDA and the agency’s Agricultural Research Service.

The three Pacific Northwest states currently account for more than 60 percent of potato production in the United States, and the three commissions hope to show other potato growing regions how working together can lessen the impact of budgetary cutbacks during this economic recession.

Kole described the initiative as one seeking efficiencies to extend the resources of the three commissions and not a pooling of their finances.

Washington state spends close to $800,000 in research projects with an additional $200,000 designated for staffing, Voight said. About a third of the Oregon commission’s budget, $240,000 to $250,000, goes to research, the largest individual item in their budget, Brewer said. Idaho spends about $750,000 in research grants and including staffing and other indirect costs, Idaho’s total comes to almost $1 million, equal to Washington, Kole said.

“There won’t be one bank account that we’ll contribute to and divide up. But I think we’ll assign responsibilities. We’ll say, ‘Idaho you’re going to be responsible for this part of the program; Oregon, you’re going to be responsible for this part; Washington, you’re going to be responsible for this part.’ Then we’ll probably independently fund it,” Voight said.

The search for efficiencies should not be interpreted as a means for downsizing or eliminating positions, he said, rather as a means to realign who would work on specific research. Instead of having three researchers working on cross-breeding, there might be two, with the third working on genetics or some other area of research.

All three agree that the devil is in the details and that there are multiple layers of details to be dealt with before the plan becomes functional. From tenure systems at the university level, to the growers, shippers and marketers in the potato industry, there’s a large list of people that have to sign off for the proposed initiative to work.

“There’s a lot of ground work to be laid. We have to make sure that this is not perceived as a top down kind of process,” Kole said. “Rather, we’re coming at it from the bottom up. We’re looking at how we can be inclusive and involve all the interested parties we’re talking about.”

Originally posted Monday, Jan. 4, 2010

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