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Hernando's Chinsegut Hill agricultural research center survives budget cuts

BROOKSVILLE — Ten months ago, Sam Coleman feared the end was near for his storied research center.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Subtropical Agricultural Research Station at Chinsegut Hill was one of three facilities targeted to be closed this year under budget cuts proposed by the Bush administration.

But the November elections brought more than a change in the White House.

A $410 billion appropriations bill proposed by the Obama administration for 2009 and approved by Congress on Wednesday restored the 3,800-acre station's $1.3 million operating budget through the current fiscal year.

Coleman, the center's director, considers it a welcome reprieve.

"It's great in that it buys us another year," he said. "But I'm not sure if we'll be better off in the long run."

The facility, which has a staff of 12, has been conducting cattle research for more than 75 years. It also has been under budgetary fire for several years.

Research studies have had to be cut and staff trimmed. Last year the facility was forced to eliminate a long-term study on cattle forage grasses because its lead researcher was reassigned. Coleman said another researcher will be gone after June.

"It makes it harder to carry out the mission that we've been hired to do," Coleman said.

With nearly 40 percent of all cow-calf breeding in the United States being done in the Gulf Coast states east of the Mississippi, ranchers have come to depend on the research being done at Chinsegut Hill.

In addition to developing hardier breeds that can withstand the heat and humidity of the South, the facility's experiments have devised higher-yielding forage grasses and have studied methods of mitigating the effects of cattle operations near sensitive wetland areas.

"I think the entire Florida cattle industry would lose the gains that they've made in their research in the various breeding techniques that have resulted from some of the research," said Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, who was one of two House members from Florida who supported the omnibus measure.

The money for the cattle research facility is part of about $4.1 million Brown-Waite secured for the 5th Congressional District, which spans west-central Florida from Marion County south to portions of Pasco County. In the 2008 spending bill, she received about $6.5 million in earmarks for her district.

With her affirmative vote, Brown-Waite went against the majority of her party. Only 16 Republicans supported the bill, with many criticizing the vast spending measures.

Brown-Waite rejected the idea that the spending item is "pork" — a disparaging term used to describe earmarks for particular congressional districts.

In January, she announced her opposition to the stimulus bill, blasting it as "pork-laden" and suggesting it focuses on "make-work government projects and pet projects of the liberal left."

The Chinsegut Hill center, she noted, is an ongoing program that was slated not to be funded. "I'm not starting a new program," she said.

Coleman said he was thankful for any political support he could get for the facility. Still, he wonders whether the station's ultimate fate will fare any better in the future.

"All we can do is hope for the best," he said

Times staff writer John Frank contributed to this report. Logan Neill can be reached at lneill@sptimes.com or 848-1435.

Hernando's Chinsegut Hill agricultural research center survives budget cuts 02/26/09 [Last modified: Thursday, February 26, 2009 7:59pm]
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