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Ag department plans new $10 million lab

By Sean Ellis

Idaho Farm Bureau Federation

 BOISE – In its proposed fiscal year 2021 budget, the Idaho State Department of Agriculture is seeking authority to use $2 million in dedicated funds to help build a new $10 million Agricultural Health Lab.

Dedicated funds are fees paid by users of a service. In the case of the new lab, the fees would be associated with a host of plant and animal testing and diagnostics services provided at the lab. 

The ag department is seeking authority from the legislature to raise $2 million in dedicated fees toward the lab during the next fiscal year. Lawmakers last year provided the department $8 million for the new lab. 

Growth in demand for services from the lab has skyrocketed in recent years, ISDA Director Celia Gould told members of the House Agricultural Affairs Committee Feb. 10. 

“This is a critical need for us and we are moving as quickly as possible on the project,” Gould said. “The building is in the planning and design phase and the construction will begin this year (and) is expected to take about one year to complete.”

The ISDA’s current lab is more than 50 years old.

“We have retrofitted it so many times that it is not suitable for future retrofitting,” ISDA Chief of Operations Chanel Tewalt told Idaho Farm Bureau Federation.  

The new, 20,000-square-foot lab will be located directly north of the ISDA headquarters building in Boise. 

The lab performs a wide array of testing and diagnostics services to the state’s agricultural industry. It includes an animal health lab, plant health lab and dairy lab and performs pathology and bacteriology services, DNA testing and disease surveillance.

Demand for services from the current lab has increased dramatically in recent years, Tewalt said.

She said the department is excited about the new lab because “we see that as a huge investment in livestock health and public health and plant health in the state of Idaho.” 

“Agriculture is the economic engine of Idaho and the service that lab provides is very important to our industry,” she added. ”We’re grateful to the legislature and governor for making this investment in the industry.”

Gov. Brad Little’s recommended budget for the ISDA for fiscal 2021 asks lawmakers for 1.4 percent fewer general funds. But the ISDA’s overall budget would increase 4 percent because of the increase in dedicated funds related to the new lab.

If the budget is approved as requested, that would continue the department’s constant move over the past 13 years from being less reliant on general and federal funding and more reliant on dedicated funding.

Thirteen years ago, the agency’s budget consisted of about a third general funds, a third federal funds and a third dedicated funds.

The ISDA’s proposed fiscal 2021 budget is 25.3 percent general funds, 13.6 percent federal funds and 61 percent dedicated funds.

The department’s proposed fiscal 2021 budget is $47 million. Of that total, $11.9 million would come from general funds, $6.4 million from federal funds and $28.7 million from dedicated funds. 

Despite rapid growth in the state’s agricultural industry, the ISDA has just two more employees than it did in 2008.

“Our agency still tends to run pretty lean,” Gould said. 

During her presentation to House ag committee members, Gould, a rancher, said Idaho agriculture is hopefully “on the upswing after some harder years, but there are still challenges. Trade headwinds persist, labor is hard to find and transportation challenges are perennial.”

“Despite all the challenges, Idaho agriculture is full of promise,” she added. “Thanks to resilient farmers and ranchers, Idaho’s agricultural economy is still the crown jewel of the Gem State.”

Gould said ISDA employees always try to remember that they are serving people, not just businesses. 

“Idaho farmers and ranchers feed the world and it’s the ISDA’s job to ensure they can get quality products to market and that consumers have the utmost confidence in the marketplace,” she said. 

Other highlights from Gould’s presentation:

  • Because of a new work plan, the ISDA Organic Program saw faster certification turnaround times in 2019 and was able to expand services to new customers.
  • ISDA utilized federal trade mitigation programs to assist Idaho ag sectors, including the onion industry, in creating new market opportunities.
  • The ISDA, along with its partners, inspected more than 118,000 watercraft last year for invasive species, a 32 percent increase in watercraft inspections since 2016.