Experiment Station positions Louisiana for global agriculture
Because of the Louisiana Agricultural Experiment Station, the state’s agriculture industry has become world class and competitive globally.
That is the opinion of three of the state’s former experiment station directors—Doyle Chambers, Macon “Duke” Faulkner and Kenneth Tipton—as they reflected on turning points and milestones of the last millennium of the LAES.
Yes, they are biased. But the bottom line is that food and fiber production is not easy in Louisiana with its lush, warm environment attractive to all kinds of fierce weeds, insects and disease organisms.
However, because of the scientific breakthroughs achieved through the experiment station, which includes 18 departments on the LSU campus and 20 research stations strategically scattered throughout the state, agriculture contributes about $10 billion to the state’s economy, second only to the petrochemical industry. And Louisiana is looked to worldwide as a leader in subtropical agriculture, particularly with sugarcane, rice and cotton production.
Research station prototype
The prototype of the research station started even before federal legislation made money available for such facilities. Louisiana farmers already knew they needed more science. In 1887, a group of sugarcane growers set up a research facility in New Orleans’ Audubon Park so they could learn more about the granulation process. Likewise in 1888, a group of North Louisiana farmers pooled money to establish a station at Calhoun to study how to grow cotton, corn and vegetable crops and improve dairy production.
The Louisiana Legislature had authorized an agricultural experiment station as part of Louisiana State University in 1884. However, the experiment station was not officially established until 1887 when the legislators agreed to comply with the provisions of the Hatch Act passed by the U.S. Congress in 1887.
“Louisiana was the first state to ratify and accept the terms of the Hatch Act,” said Chambers, who was director from 1964 to 1985.
Then in 1890, Congress made money available to actually carry out this concept. To qualify for the money, LSU had to join with the New Orleans and Calhoun stations. The three entities became what grew to be the LAES.
The money was earmarked for research only, which led to a shake-up of the system.
Director was dean, too
“The director of the experiment station was also the dean of agriculture in the early years,” Chambers said. “The feds came down with an audit and threatened to remove the funding.
” With state funding short, the dean had used the federal research money to undergird the teaching program. Consequently beginning in 1931, two separate systems were established—one for research and one for teaching.
“Every department had a research head and a teaching head—duplicate heads,” Chambers said. “It was an inefficient use of resources and talent.”
J. Norman Efferson, the first chancellor of the Ag Center, changed that in the 1950s when he was the dean of agriculture. He persuaded the LSU administration to split the resources instead of the talent so faculty had joint appointments between research and teaching.
“This moved agricultural science forward,” Chambers said.
Ag faculty could now teach and take advantage of student energy to carry out research projects. And students, the future ag leaders, could learn first-hand from the researchers.
Mixing up the money caused another problem, though. The infusion of federal dollars into the agriculture departments gave the appearance of inequities across campus, especially when student numbers were factored in. A solution put forth by a task force of outsiders was to split research and teaching.
“I didn’t want history to repeat itself,” Chambers said.
As a former agriculture student at LSU, he had witnessed the effects of split departments. He knew this was not the best course for progress. A better solution was to make a separate campus of research and extension and keep the joint appointments with the College of Agriculture. Partly through his influence, the LSU Agricultural Center was born in 1972.
“Agricultural research had a difficult time competing with campus departments for funds,” Chambers said. “As a separate campus with our own administrative structure, we could better meet the needs for agricultural research.”
First rice station
Meanwhile, branch stations were added over the years. Some were created for specialized purposes, such as the Rice Research Station in 1909, the first of its kind in the country.
The agricultural producers themselves continued to be a driving force behind the establishment of stations. Farmers in Northeast Louisiana wanted to know more about growing cotton and other crops so put in some of their own funds for the creation of the Northeast Research Station at St. Joseph in 1929. A branch station was added at Winnsboro in 1949 to aid in research on two different soil types—the rich, alluvial soils of the Mississippi Delta and the lighter and poorer loessel soils upland on the Macon Ridge.
“A problem would have two different solutions, depending on the soil,” Chambers said.
The “fruit and truck crop people” wanted a station near Hammond, which was the center of strawberry country and production of other fruits and vegetables. So in 1922, the Hammond Research Station was started. In 1949, the Citrus Research Station was also formed to do research on fruits and vegetables, including citrus, to help the farmers meet the produce needs of New Orleans.
The technological demands of a post-war economy helped drive the formation of several branch stations soon after World War II. For example, farmers in the northwest corner of the state wanted to learn how to grow corn and better ways to grow cotton. Their request was met with the establishment of the Red River Research Station near Bossier City in 1947. Similar scenarios led to the Hill Farm Research Station near Homer and the Rosepine Research Station near Rosepine, both in 1947.
Sweet potato farmers needed a research station well north of the sweet potato weevil zone, which covers most of South Louisiana. In 1949, the country’s first and only Sweet Potato Research Station was started in Chase.
“One of their functions was and still is to develop sweet potato seed free of this pest,” Chambers said.
As these various stations were added, inequities arose in their funding. Even though they were part of the experiment station, they operated independently in budgeting. Some superintendents, which is what resident directors were called then, could generate more money than others.
“Some were starving. Others were blowin’ and goin’,” Chambers said.
To bring about a better planning, Chambers put them all under one budgeting system.
“This was certainly one of the key turning points,” said Faulkner, who was experiment station director for a year in 1988 and 1989. He had previously been the resident director of the Rice Research Station and director of international programs for the Ag Center.
This change allowed the research program to branch into new areas, including soybeans, aquaculture and forage production, all of which have led to better agriculture for Louisiana.
But the transition was not easy.
“Some of the superintendents were unhappy,” Chambers said.
Another pivotal moment for agricultural research came in 1971, when commodity groups voted to mandate a check-off program to support research. The rice producers were the first group.
“This showed tremendous support for the work we were doing,” said Tipton, who was director from 1989 to 1996.
One of Tipton’s challenges was to minimize the effects of a number of years of declining financial support. However, one of the worst days of his career was when he was told to cut the budget by 25 percent.
“It was on a Good Friday,” he said. “I felt like I was crucifying the research program.”
Fortunately, he did not actually have to implement the cuts.
But despite limited funding, the caliber of the research and contributions to the state remained top rate. For example, during Tipton’s administration the Louisiana Forest Products Laboratory was added to expand research on the state’s No. 1 agriculture crop, timber.
Both Faulkner and Tipton credit Chambers for setting a tone of excellence and a reverence for ideas.
“He was an idea man,” Tipton said, who had served as resident director of the Red River Station and associate director under Chambers.
Research milestones of the last millennium cover a gamut because of the diversity of Louisiana’s agriculture. Experiment station scientists have been pioneers in the crossbreeding of cattle, tissue culture and the introduction of new varieties that have kept certain commodities viable in the state, such as the sweet potato.
Experiment station scientists are considered world leaders in in vitro fertilization and the development of herbicide-resistant rice.
Direct applicability to the urban audience includes the work with the Formosan subterranean termite and red imported fire ant.
The LAES begins the new millennium plump with past accomplishments yet poised for future needs. The scientists are breaking new ground in gene transfer, which holds the answers to greater yields with less chemical use. The station is also a leader in patenting and licensing some of the technologies developed to help offset some of the ever-increasing costs of doing research.
But continued success requires continued public support.
“Without that, we may go to the grocery store and find the shelves empty,” Chambers said. “Without the Louisiana Agricultural Experiment Station, there would be no agriculture in Louisiana.”
(This article was published in the winter 2000 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)