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Setback for Research

November 21, 1987

We cannot help but wish that there had been no legal challenge to the agricultural research program of the University of California because the result, however sound it may be in the narrow legal context, could do more harm than good.

The indignation of the California Agrarian Action Project that motivated the original filing in 1979 is understandable. California Rural Legal Assistance lawyers make a compelling case about the excesses of some UC research programs, notably the tomato-picking machine, that served to consolidate tomato growing in the hands of a few big farmers instead of many smaller operators. There was a suspicion of conflict of interest, never proved, and of prejudice in favor of mega-agricultural enterprises, never proved. And in those days before the state adopted its Agricultural Labor Relations Act, exploitation of those who worked the fields was worse than it is today.

Judge Raymond L. Marsh, in the Superior Court of Alameda County, seems to have faithfully and literally interpreted the 1887 Hatch Act in his judgment against the university. The act requires research under the federal program to benefit primarily the small family farm, but also "rural residents" and consumers. The university has acknowledged that its research planning does not give priority to those goals, nor does it explicitly provide for a categorical review of expenditures of Hatch Act money against those requirements.

But the judge has, at the same time, created an impossible task for himself and for the university. He has concluded that the university's respect of the Hatch Act cannot be judged by a project-by-project review of performance but can only be judged on the basis of procedures that the university now puts in place.

So the university has 90 days to contrive procedures for allocating the federal money in accordance with the three Hatch Act priorities and then must report back once a year, for five years, to let the judge decide whether the procedures are in conformity with the law.

We read the Hatch Act differently. We read it as a broad mandate, a broad and potentially contradictory mandate--tomato-picking machines, it could be argued, benefit consumers but hurt small farmers and farm workers.

We cannot imagine a reasonable test that would satisfy the language literally interpreted, let alone the congressional intent of 1887. That may explain why this challenge appears to be unique. Nor can we think, in our own knowledge of what the university has been doing, that it has failed, over-all, to implement what is best for all farmers, all consumers, and the rural population as well.

The absence, in the court proceedings, of any definition of "small family farms" may be tacit appreciation of radical changes that have taken place in agriculture and the problem of discriminating between part-time and hobbyist farmers on the one hand and small full-time farmers.

The federal money provides 3% of the university's agricultural research budget, and state matching funds bring the total to 6%. At present, that money is commingled with funds for about two-thirds of all of the university's experimental station research. Because of that, the university is exposed now to applying goal-oriented priorities to the majority of its farm research, a requirement that risks, as university officials have persuasively argued, the very academic freedom that has made UC a world leader in this research.

University officials will appeal the decision. So they should. They can take the finding of the judge as an admonition regarding mistaken steps in the past. But they should fight to keep the freedom of research planning that has been crucial to the evident success of the system.

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