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UC Ordered to Alter Focus of Farm Research

November 18, 1987|PHILIP HAGER | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — An Alameda County judge on Tuesday upheld a landmark challenge to the University of California agricultural research program, ruling that the university must revamp its projects to bring greater benefits to small family farmers, consumers and farm workers.

Superior Judge Raymond L. Marsh signed a final order in the eight-year case and is expected to file the judgment officially today, according to attorneys in the case.

Marsh held that the university failed to comply with an 1887 federal statute requiring land-grant institutions to give small farmers "primary consideration" in federally funded research projects. Congress also has expressly intended that such research aid "the welfare of the consumer" and contribute to "the maintenance of maximum employment," he said.

90 Days to Report

Marsh gave the university 90 days to prepare a detailed plan to revise its $116-million-a-year farm-research program and said it should be ready to file annual progress reports with the court for the next five years.

University lawyers criticized the decision, saying it could infringe on academic freedom. The university will appeal the ruling and seek a stay preventing the judge's order from taking effect, they said.

The ruling, if upheld, will establish an important precedent for similar lawsuits challenging federally supported agricultural research by universities in other states, attorneys said.

The action culminated a widely watched lawsuit launched by a group of small farmers, agricultural workers and others charging that the UC research program had improperly favored large corporate farms, food processors, chemical companies and machinery manufacturers.

One of the lawyers for the group, William G. Hoerger of California Rural Legal Assistance, said the order will force the university to put much less emphasis on the development of expensive products and technology.

"Up to now, much research has gone into developing new techniques that require large expenditures," he said. "But that's not the kind of research small farmers need. They need help in management, finance and marketing, for example."

'Substantial Change'

Ralph Santiago Abascal, another Legal Assistance attorney in the case, predicted "a very substantial change" in the UC program.

"The criticism for decades has been that agricultural research here and the rest of the country has been tilted towards the interest of big corporate farms," he said. "Hopefully that's over and this huge system with tremendous influence and impact will be more in tune with the interests of small farmers."

According to census data, about half of California's 82,500 farms are designated as "small," bringing in annual receipts of $2,500 to $100,000.

While the university receives only about $4 million in federal funds a year for agricultural research, that money supports 528 of its 1,327 research projects. One of the largest agricultural programs in the nation, the university's research is primarily carried out at its Davis, Berkeley and Riverside campuses, as well as at nine additional field stations.

Historical Precedent

On the other side, UC Counsel Gary Morrison expressed confidence that the decision would be overturned. "This law has been on the books over 100 years and no secretary of agriculture nor any court has ever reached this conclusion," he said.

Morrison also expressed concern that the ruling could intrude on academic freedom.

"Any kind of unwarranted, open-ended interference with the research process does touch on academic freedom," Morrison said. "It's in the best interests of society if the university and its professors are given leeway to do research according to scientific standards. Otherwise, research becomes politicized."

The suit was filed in 1979 by the California Agrarian Action Project of Davis, Calif., and 15 farm workers charged, among other things, that the university's emphasis on developing labor-saving machinery and other products failed to help small growers and deprived farm workers of jobs.

Tomato Harvester

The plaintiffs cited as an example the university's role in the development of a mechanical tomato harvester that they said put 18,000 farm workers out of jobs. The machines were so costly--$175,000 apiece--that they drove 3,500 growers out of business, the group said.

The university replied that its programs were designed to benefit both big and small farms, as well as consumers, and that the suit was a politically motivated attack on academic freedom.

In the years of court proceedings that followed, all but one of the plaintiffs' original claims were dropped or dismissed--including allegations that some UC regents improperly held interests in firms that benefited from university research, and that the use of state and federal funds to aid private producers amounted to an illegal gift of public funds.

Heart of the Case

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