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Cuts May Peril Farm Agency Programs

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Pests are a specialty of the Orange County Cooperative Extension service.

When the white ash fly threatened the trees and shrubs of Orange County’s $133-million nursery industry, the extension service flew in a parasitic wasp from across the Atlantic Ocean.

More recently, the agency has been following the development of a predator snail, which kills fellow snails that feed on citrus crops, an $18-million industry in the county.

But some of these programs could be in danger after the County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to slash $77,000 from the extension service’s $1.2-million budget for 1991-92. The University of California, which provides more than $1 million of the agency’s budget, said the county’s action could threaten its support for the program.

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J. Michael Henry, extension office director in Anaheim, said: “We’re definitely going to have to lay off staff. Beyond that, I’m not ready to say.” The office has a staff of six people.

The service has been a conduit between Orange County farmers and researchers.

“The ability to get information about new scientific discoveries is one of the major benefits of having this type of program,” Henry said. “Things are always changing, such as the economics. And new pests and diseases are always coming along. At one time, water was plentiful; now it’s not.”

The extension service gives farmers information about pest and water management, fertilizers, harvesting, marketing and labor management. It is the community service arm of the UC system.

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Cutting the agency’s budget from $256,000 to $179,000 is a step toward putting it out of business, said Nanci Jimenez, director of the Orange County Farm Bureau, a local farmers’ group.

“We now see every year less and less support by local government,” Jimenez said.

County supervisors who favored cutting the extension service’s budget argued that agriculture is a diminishing part of the Orange County economy. But statistics show that farm revenue was $220 million in 1979, compared to $256 million in 1990.

The amount of land farmed in the county has remained stable at about 16,000 acres since 1979, Jimenez said.

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Irvine Co.-owned land accounts for 3,000 of those acres, which are leased to growers. The giant developer plans to build houses on the land when the real estate market improves. Most of the former 100,000-acre Irvine Ranch is now covered with malls, houses and condominiums.

But Jimenez points out that farming contributes more than $7 million a year in county property taxes and supports other industries such as trucking, distribution and box manufacturing.

Farmers interviewed on Wednesday said that without the extension service, they would feel isolated from the agricultural community outside of Orange County.

“It is regrettable because the extension service was asked to cut 40% versus other departments, which only had a 10% cut,” said Jan Groot, an owner of the 90-acre El Modeno Gardens, which grows nursery plants in Irvine.

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“We depend on (the extension service) for growing advice and for advice to cope with all the laws and regulations coming down about water runoff, pesticides (and worker) safety,” Groot said.


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