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USDA/NIFA Director Makes Visiting UNH a Priority

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Dr. Sonny Ramaswamy, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA)
Dr. Sonny Ramaswamy, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), greets N.H. Commissioner of Agriculture Lorraine Merrill (right) and UNH senior vice provost for research Jan Nisbet (center) at UNH's Woodman Horticultural Farm Tuesday.

COLSA hosted Sonny Ramaswamy, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), at a town hall-style meeting at UNH’s Woodman Horticultural Farm Tuesday. Ramaswamy’s trip to UNH marks his second visit to a land-grant college since his appointment as director of NIFA by the White House eight weeks ago. In attendance were many of COLSA’s faculty, students, and staff, and members of the public, including Commissioner of Agriculture, Lorraine Merrill; State Senator Amanda Merrill; and Director of the New Hampshire Farm Bureau, Rob Johnson.

Ramaswamy spoke in detail about the current funding challenges he has inherited and discussed a variety of topics, including the importance of agricultural research and production, the consequences we face if there is no new farm bill by September 30, Congress’s general feeling about issues of climate change and new energy solutions as these apply to agriculture, the trials investigators face in searching for non-federal matching funds to grants, and the need to clear the pipeline so that American students can meet the demand for more plant breeders and other skilled workers in various phases of the agricultural industry.

“We’ve heard you loud and clear, saying we need to invest more money in the smaller, foundational grants to address the needs of research and education,” said Ramaswamy of the $80 million earmarked for foundational programs. In addition, he acknowledged scientists’ requests to make grant applications less proscriptive, to support critical agricultural production, and to provide funding for pre- and post-docs in the field. “We’re focusing on production agriculture,” said Ramaswamy, assuring the crowd that in the next few years there will be some answers to the concerns many people across the nation have expressed.

Dr. Sonny Ramaswamy, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA)
Sonny Ramaswamy, director of the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), visited UNH’s Woodman Horticultural Farm Tuesday. Credit: Victoria Courtland

In an open dialogue, Ramaswamy asked what the audience needed from NIFA. UNH professor of plant biology Iago Hale expressed an interest in what kind of funding would be redirected for traditional plant breeding efforts, to which Ramaswamy responded, in part, “We invested $58.9 million in classical plant breeding in the last three years to improve plant traits by using techniques that do not require trans-genetic approaches.”

UNH professor of plant biology Tom Davis inquired about the possibility of tapping into a larger pool of funds, traditionally allocated to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), for agricultural projects that have outcomes impacting human health. Ramaswamy said, “That’s my intent – to work with [NIH director] Francis Collins. It used to be all about farm to fork, now it’s changed from farm to fork to healthy outcomes. The outcome needs to drive your breeding work.”

Anita Klein, N.H. Agricultural Experiment Station faculty fellow, asked what kind of priority NIFA placed on sustainable energy or bioenergy in its portfolio of funding. “I was told to backpedal on climate change, and I said, No way. As a scientist, I have seen it,” said Ramaswamy who went on to discuss a project at the University of Pennsylvania in which scientists took starch derived from corn and wheat to create new generations of lithium batteries that are much better at holding a charge. “Congress is not convinced [about climate change], but this is an area we must invest in, and we are not going to walk away from it.”

Ramaswamy encouraged people to reach out to their legislature, to call – rather than email – their senators in support of the farm bill. “I don’t know if you’ve seen how the farm bill is put together,” said Ramaswamy, “but the process is worse than making sausage.” Despite any frustrations, he’s excited about a component in the bill that includes an effort to create a 501c3 foundation with its first $100 million funded by Congress to be followed by support from private companies. Grants will support public education, agricultural production, plant breeding, and more.

While Ramaswamy is hamstrung by mortgages that will tie up 35 percent of NIFA’s funding for the next few years, he remains optimistic about that which can be done to have immediate effects. Establishing Career Awards that give a leg up to scientists in the early stages of their careers is on his to-do list, along with providing modest funding for Blue Sky Research in support of the great ideas that spring from high-risk research that just might change the world. Ramaswamy urged everyone not to “focus too much on the hard science and forget the human dimension” of research. “Ultimately, agriculture is about feeding people – alleviating hunger – but it’s also about jobs.”

Prior to his visit at UNH, Ramaswamy traveled to the University of Vermont and the Justin Morrill homestead in Strafford, Vermont, during this 150th anniversary of the Morrill Land-Grant College Act of 1862. This is also the 125th anniversary of the Hatch Act, which NIFA administers. 

To contact Dr. Ramaswamy with questions or comments, email sonny@nifa.usda.gov or call 202-720-4423.