Haysville horticulture research center fights to save itself after K-State cuts

Jason Griffin, director of the John C. Pair Horticulture Center, looked for alternate funding sources for the center after Kansas State University said budget cuts would force it to close the center.
Jason Griffin, director of the John C. Pair Horticulture Center, looked for alternate funding sources for the center after Kansas State University said budget cuts would force it to close the center. The Wichita Eagle

Staffers and people who rely on one of Kansas State University's research centers just south of Wichita are trying to find a way to keep the center open after the university announced it would close the center.

Landscapers and gardeners in the state could lose a valuable information resource in the John C. Pair Horticulture Center in Haysville, members of the horticulture industry said, if the center can't find new sources of revenue once it's cut from the university's budget. The center has seen its share of budget cuts over the years, but K-State's decision to close the center seemed abrupt to the center's staff and faculty, who said they weren't consulted.

There's no other center in Kansas quite like it, Jason Griffin, director of the center, said. Although the university has other horticultural research centers in Manhattan and Olathe, the Haysville center experiences conditions that are unique to the southern half of the state.

In the horticultural community, those who rely on the center's research and recommendations — including gardeners, landscapers and extension agents — were surprised by the decision to close.

In its announcement in June, Kansas State cited lower state funding for higher education and declining enrollment as reasons for cutting $3.5 million from College of Agriculture and K-State Research and Extension's budget this year, which in turn led to the decision to close the John C. Pair Horticulture Center.

But things aren't quite over for the center. On the morning the university announced the center's planned closure, 34 members of the horticulture industry gathered to discuss their response to the announcement at an impromptu breakfast meeting. They decided to call K-State administrators and embark on an awareness campaign to save the center.

"We’re all very concerned about the research that is going on there going away, because it is really important to not only the industry, but the general public as well," said Dail Hong, president of Hong's Landscaping and Nursery, and a Kansas Nursery and Landscaping board member.

Later that day, university officials decided to give the center a chance. Ernie Minton, associate dean of research and graduate programs for the university's College of Agriculture, said the university still plans to close the center, but if alternate funding sources are found, the university would consider allowing the center to remain open.

Griffin, director of the center for 17 years, has been given the challenge of organizing an advisory board and coming up with a plan to make the center self-sustaining. That means the center needs to find $230,000 in new revenue sources each year. The center currently brings in about $30,000 a year.

"There have been lots of ideas, and we want to hear everything — even if it's crazy," Griffin said. "We've been told we need to raise revenue. Maybe sell something, or maybe we charge for the educational programs we do. Maybe we start growing crops and selling them. We need to generate that revenue."

At the center, Griffin drove around 120 acres of crops, trees, turfgrass and greenhouses. He pointed out the value of each of the center's areas of research and cultivation.

For example, the center grows and sells certified organic sweet potato slips. Organic farmers are required to start with organic plant material, and Griffin said the center ships and sells about 250,000 of the slips each year to farmers in 27 states.

Another example: One of the center's more promising areas of research is its development of a pine tree resistant to pine wilt, an invasive disease spread by beetles that has devastated much of the Scots pine population in the eastern portion of the state. In Kansas' rough environment, Scots pines are tough trees that grow fast, transplant easily and are commonly used in wind breaks. The center has a few young trees that may be resistant to the disease, but since the disease mostly attacks mature trees, only time will tell if the center's trees pan out.

Both plants could be great opportunities to sustain the center. Griffin said doubling production of the sweet potato slips is a possibility, and a patent on pine wilt-resistant trees could be a substantial new source of revenue.

"In horticulture, we touch the lives of every Kansan," Griffin said. "If you plant grass, if you mow, that’s horticulture. If you enjoy standing in the shade of a nice tree, that’s horticulture. If you have a house plant, that’s horticulture. If you plant a tomato plant, that’s horticulture. Every single person in the state of Kansas touches horticulture, in some way, and the center is a part of that."

The horticulture industry, which includes landscapers, nurseries and gardeners, relies on the real-time information that the center provides on plants, like insect and disease outbreaks.

"That information is really priceless because if I wait until the media picks it up or until it is published in a book, then as a business owner trying to provide the best service I can for my customers, then I’m behind the ball," said Alex Gottlob, owner of Gottlob Lawn and Landscaping.

Given the nature of the center's work, it's sometimes hard to put a specific number on the center's contributions to the field, Griffin said. Much of the center's research spans years, if not decades, so any new techniques, procedures or knowledge might not be implemented for a while.

The cruel Kansas climate can also take its toll on the center's experiments. Researchers might evaluate a plant for 10 years, but one really hot summer, or one late freeze, can mean the end of research.

The research isn't easily relocated either. Each plant is unique, and transplanting them to other facilities would take money and land that isn't readily available. Some of the center's plants could be moved, but others would be "completely lost," said Cheryl Boyer, associate professor and nursery crop extension specialist at K-State.

"We think it’s our flagship horticulture station," Boyer said. "It’s certainly a jewel for Kansas, and it would be heartbreaking to lose decades of research and extension and teaching opportunities that benefit Kansans in every edge of the state."

As the center looks for new sources of revenue, Griffin said he hopes people understand the valuable information that the center provides.

"Once it's gone, we will never, ever get another horticulture facility in this part of the state," Griffin said. "I'm very hopeful that the administration will listen to the outpouring of support and perhaps find a way to keep this place."