Campus News

Agricultural college to sell Oconee farm, manage USDA facility

In its August meeting, the University System of Georgia Board of Regents approved the sale of the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences’ Plant Sciences Farm in Watkinsville. The 522-acre farm will be sold to the Townley Family Partnership for $11.4 million.

The college offered the farm for public bid following several years of budget cuts totaling close to 30 percent. J. Scott Angle, CAES dean and director, said the farm sale would help move along a plan to consolidate the college’s property holdings, while generating needed funds for repairs at other facilities.

“We maintain nearly 18,000 acres of land around the state,” Angle said. “Our facilities at many of those sites are now in dire need of repair, because we haven’t had the money to maintain them.”

The Plant Sciences Farm was deemed highly marketable land that could generate the much-needed funds for infrastructure improvements and investments at other CAES facilities.

The ag college is funded differently from other UGA colleges because Cooperative Extension and the Agricultural Experiment Stations are state agencies housed within the college and make up the majority of the college’s state budget funds. Neither agency gets money from student tuition.

Over this four-year cycle of cuts, CAES eliminated 355 faculty and staff positions through attrition, retirements and layoffs and along with funds for operating and support.

“Making permanent decisions like selling land and laying off employees are never easy decisions,” Angle said. “But, we must make decisions that will help us function effectively long term. And, in the short term, we must make decisions that will help us best support the programs and facilities Georgians need from us.”

Earlier this year, facing its own budget cuts, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced it would close the J. Phil Campbell Sr. Natural Resource Conservation Center also in Watkinsville. Closure orders included a clause giving local land-grant universities the first right of refusal to assume ownership of closed facilities.

Late last month, UGA administrators signed an agreement to transfer management of the Campbell facility to the university.

“Because of the Campbell farm’s proximity to us, our faculty have often partnered with USDA scientists there over the years,” Angle said. “Acquiring use of this facility doesn’t immediately reduce our acreage, but it gives us useful space close to campus where we can consolidate some of our various research, teaching and extension facilities into one location. That gives us greater flexibility to identify other land holdings we can sell or discontinue leases on in the future.”

Plans for the Campbell facility are still being finalized. The possible uses include a new home for the Oconee County Extension office and the local farmers market, along with the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Program and some of the college’s sustainable grazing and agricultural conservation research and instruction activities.

To help guide future adjustments, CAES developed a new strategic plan that is in review. Angle expects the completed plan will help the college focus available resources on the most valuable, needed programs to Georgians and identify underutilized programs and properties that can be reduced, combined or eliminated.

“We manage a lot of land that is marginal for cultivation and research,” Angle said. “Liquidating land that isn’t contributing to our research and extension efforts can help reduce our financial obligations for maintenance, while putting land back on the county tax rolls. It’s a win-win.”