SAF: Last December, the Floriculture & Nursery Research Initiative received a $1 million increase in funding for the fiscal year 2023, matching the largest increase the program has ever received. What did it take to make that happen?
Joe Bischoff: A lot of things. First, putting a face on the ask for congressional offices, which is what happened when SAF members took this issue to the Hill during Congressional Action Days last spring. It also takes year-round engagement with members of Congress and their staff to build relationships, and we rely in part on SAFPAC to do that. Also, when we brought this issue to the Hill, we talked about innovations members of Congress and staff were familiar with in other sectors, like drones. We said this funding could help us make advancements for floriculture that have been seen in other industries, and that story resonated. All of those elements came together to help us create champions for the issue — members of Congress who were willing to say, “Yes, I will push to get a significant increase.”
SAF: What is the increase going to be used for, and why is it important?
Joe Bischoff: FNRI is a vital part of SAF’s efforts to respond to pest and disease problems, tackle the challenges of climate change, enhance the efficiency of production practices, develop and promote sustainable growing practices, and broaden the message of the positive environmental and social impact of the industry’s crops.
The $1 million increase is an annual addition to the $5.4 million already going toward FNRI research projects each year. Since the program is getting bigger, it can work on a broader range of issues. FNRI can expand its work on crop protection and projects targeted toward post-harvest care and extending the vase life of products. With the recent funding increase, there was a clear indication from Congress to see some of the funding directed toward adapting drone technology in floriculture. Appropriately configured, Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) can help producers with pest and disease scouting, monitor abiotic stresses, and even apply crop production and protection products. These systems will allow growers to use their labor more efficiently, improve soil health through reduced compaction and slash pesticide use through precision applications.
SAF: Why is the $1 million increase for the fiscal year 2023 at risk for the fiscal year 2024?
Joe Bischoff: In public comments and in private conversations with congressional staff, we’re getting signals that House Republicans are looking to cut spending on domestic programs for the 2024 fiscal year budget. If the USDA is asked to make cuts, programs like FNRI are at risk. We need to make the case on the Hill that wherever the overall funding level for USDA ends up, FNRI should not be one of the programs that faces cuts.
SAF: What can SAF and its members do to protect the funding increase?
Joe Bischoff: During Congressional Action Days appointments, we’re going to ask congressional offices to add budget reporting language that maintains FNRI funding at 2023 fiscal year levels. Those visits provide the opportunity to highlight why the funding needs to be preserved and why FNRI is a unique program.
The research done under FNRI involves dynamic partnerships between the floral and nursery industry, the academic community, and the federal government. Those partnerships have been cited by the USDA as a unique and important model to follow for other industries interested in creating a similar program. Members of Congress would be hard-pressed to find a better example of industry and research collaborations are some things they need to continue to support.
SAF: How do SAF members get involved?
Joe Bischoff: Attend Congressional Action Days and experience firsthand what it’s like to make a difference on an issue that’s so important to floriculture. A bonus of attending this year: SAF has been pushing for FNRI funding increases for the past five years, and for the first time, SAF members will hear directly from the program’s leader for specialty crops – Tim Rinehart — on what FNRI has been able to accomplish and plans for the future.