Jersey genetics seen as saving UT's farm

Friday, September 4, 2009
Marshall County Mayor Joe Boyd Liggett, center, confers with state Rep. Eddie Bass, left, and Sen. Bill Ketron, right, about the Jersey cow herd developed by the University of Tennessee on its research farm just south of Lewisburg.

Federal economic stimulus money stopped transfer of Jersey cows from Lewisburg to Spring Hill, but it's temporary, so state and county leaders were brainstorming here this week on how to save money and increase revenue for the state dairy at New Lake Road.

"Clearly, this herd of Jerseys is excellent," said Dr. Bill Brown, dean of AgResearch at the University of Tennessee, the institution that operates the Dairy Research and Education Center, founded in 1929 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and merged with UT in 1948.

Genetic research in those 80 years substantiates the dean's observation and his discussion with Dr. Joe DiPietro, UT's vice president for agriculture, presented "increased marketing" of Jersey genetics with semen collection and embryo transfer as a way to increase and sustain revenue for the dairy.

However, Brown said, "That's outside of what a university does.

"We don't want to get into a situation in which we are competing with our clients," Brown said during an hour-long meeting with state Sen. Bill Ketron, state Rep. Eddie Bass, County Mayor Joe Boyd Liggett, County Commission Chairwoman Mary Ann Neill, Commissioner Tony White, chairman of the county's Agriculture Committee, UT Extension Agent Rick Skillington and others on Tuesday in the Hardison Office Annex.

Other alternatives being investigated include "marketing 'value added' milk or milk products at a premium price," according to a discussion outline presented by the UT leaders who indicated cheese and ice cream might become products produced at the dairy and sold to the public.

"There's already one," DiPietro said, naming the Hatcher Dairy in Williamson County where its products are sold at farmers' markets. "So it's not at ground zero."

Still, UT Agriculture officials need to know what the institution can do, they said.

"Might you do that through a foundation?" Ketron asked, offering a legal arrangement developed for the University of Tennessee Space Institute on the shores of Woods Reservoir at Arnold Engineering Development Center near Tullahoma.

"Yes," DiPietro said. "We need to think out of the box."

Like other UT research and education centers, the state's dairy farm here has some revenue because it sells milk, and Brown said that kind of arrangement has allowed UT to have 10 centers with the money it spends on them, instead of less than half as many.

Nevertheless, increasing profits for a state farm raises political issues.

"A big obstacle," Bass said, "is going to be a fight with the milk companies."

DiPietro replied, "We thought it was worth looking at."

"I do too," Bass said.

Agreements with other states' universities for a larger economy of scale were also suggested.

The University of Kentucky is under pressure to use its dairy farm on campus more, or lose the land to other projects, Brown said, noting that maintenance of the UT farm here could provide a location for UK students and/or their need for cows for their research and education.

Reaching agreements for such a partnership may take time, but Brown also noted Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky and South Carolina might be joined with UT for a regional approach.

Marshall's mayor supported that idea.

"When this was formed in 1917, the (Act of Congress) said this was designed to be a dairy for the south eastern states," Liggett said. "Maybe that's the purpose of this to bring it around."

Various other ideas discussed included: Conversion of methane from dairy waste to electricity; Continued administrative efficiency with one director for the farms here and in Spring Hill; Landing federal earmark money for several projects; And more discussions with the Jersey Association.

"We're looking at it as how it affects this county," Ketron said, noting high unemployment here. "We need to find solutions. We're prepared to stand up and fight for you all."

DiPietro suggested the group "get back together in January."