Legislators question UVM’s commitment to agriculture

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(Host) Lawmakers are questioning the University of Vermont’s commitment to agriculture now that the school has closed its soil testing lab.

The House and Senate Agriculture Committees held a joint hearing on the issue today. They’ve asked the school to document how its support for agriculture has changed over the past 20 years.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) UVM decided to close the soil testing lab last fall because the facility was running a $160,000 deficit. Two staff members resigned and the lab’s director was laid off.

The lab’s closing struck a raw nerve with lawmakers. The chairs of four legislative committees wrote a strongly worded letter to UVM President Dan Fogel asking why they were given no warning.

The letter said – quote – "At the same time that the community is looking to UVM to step up its leadership role, UVM is instead unhooking from the responsibilities expected of a state land grant college."

But Agriculture Dean Rachel Johnson told lawmakers that the school remains focused on farming.

(Johnson) “It’s a wonderful time in the college. Trustees have approved $55.7 million for a new plant science building that will house our departments of plant and soil science and our department of plant biology.”

(Dillon) Johnson said she decided to close the lab because it kept losing money. The soil testing service was outsourced to the University of Maine, although the results are still interpreted by UVM staff. UVM has discontinued its testing of forage crops.

Dean Johnson said feed dealers provide forage testing for farmers. But that drew a skeptical response from Essex-Orleans Senator Bobby Starr. He said these companies may have a conflict of interest.

(Starr) “So I wouldn’t want to buy forage supplements to feed my animals when I was getting results of my forage testing from the person I had to buy the supplements from. I would want to get my analysis from a neutral party.”

(Dillon) Members of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees said farmers need accurate and timely test results for soil and forage crops. They said the demand is even greater now that farmers are under pressure to keep nutrients out of rivers and Lake Champlain.

Representative Albert Perry is a Richford Democrat who is vice chair of the House Ag committee. He asked UVM to document how its support for agriculture – both in terms of money and staff members – has changed over the past two decades.

(Perry) “That will be the basis for me to ask for some changes in funding or in the responsibilities. But my impression today – vivid impression – was UVM in particular seems to be much more focused on capital construction, capital improvements, than they are in providing services in the field.”

(Dillon) The committees also heard from officials at Vermont Technical College in Randolph. They said they didn’t want to compete with UVM and set up their own testing lab, but could do the job if asked.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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