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ARS Utilization Centers' 75th Anniversary

Between late 2015 and early 2016, each of the four Agricultural Research Service utilization centers will celebrate its 75th anniversary.

But what is a utilization center, and why do we need them? The answer is to make good use of leftover byproducts of crops used for food, feed, fuel, and fiber.

The need for utilization centers started in the 1920s, and moved relatively quickly from there. In the late 1920s, improvements in mechanization, agricultural practices, and cultivars led to an increase in agricultural production that resulted in crop surpluses and a decline in farm prices. Many farmers and Members of Congress blamed “science” for the surpluses.

Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace reported in the 1934 Yearbook of Agriculture:

“It may seem that the farmer has a quarrel with science; for science increases his productivity, and this tends to increase the burden of the surplus…. These ideas lead to something of a revolt against science, and to demands for a halt in technical progress until consumption catches up with production…. Science has magnificently enabled mankind to conquer the problem of producing enough to go around. It has now to help us utilize the increased productivity.”

In 1935, in order to address science and agricultural production, Senator John Bankhead and Congressman John Jones introduced a law directing the Secretary of Agriculture to:

“conduct research into laws and principles underlying basic problems of agriculture in its broadest aspects; research relating to the improvement of the quality of, and the development of new and improved methods of production of, distribution of, and new and extended uses and markets for, agricultural commodities and byproducts and manufactures thereof.”

As a result, Secretary Wallace established a National Research Center in Beltsville, Maryland, and nine regional research laboratories throughout the country.

In order to further develop farm policy, President Franklin D. Roosevelt held a conference in 1937 of farm leaders and Congress. The result of this conference was Public Law 75-430. Under Section 202:

“The Secretary is hereby authorized and directed to establish, equip, and maintain four regional research laboratories, one in each major farm producing area, and, at such laboratories, to conduct researches into and to develop new scientific, chemical, and technical uses and new and extended markets and outlets for farm commodities and products and byproducts thereof.”

The four laboratories—eventually called “utilization centers” to avoid confusion with the nine regional research laboratories—were constructed in Wyndmoor, Pennsylvania; Peoria, Illinois; New Orleans, Louisiana; and Albany, California, where they remain in operation today.

In order to coordinate the administrative and research efforts of the National Research Center, the nine regional research laboratories, the four utilization centers, and the Office of Experimental Stations, President Roosevelt in 1942 created the Agricultural Research Administration (ARA). Under the ARA, each of the research groups retained its independent status, but they were centrally coordinated. In 1953, the U.S. Department of Agriculture consolidated most of its research activities into an outgrowth of the ARA, the Agricultural Research Service (ARS).

The four utilization centers are the Eastern Regional Research Center (ERRC), Wyndmoor; the National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research (NCAUR), Peoria; the Southern Regional Research Center (SRRC), New Orleans; and the Western Regional Research Center (WRRC), Albany.

Today, each utilization center performs research on agriculture specific to its region. For example, ERRC develops new and improved uses for animal byproducts, such as milk, hides, and wool; SRRC focuses on cotton and sugarcane and their byproducts; NCAUR studies corn and soybeans and their byproducts; and WRRC works on weeds, wheat, and potato breeding and their byproducts. WRRC also established research projects on crop improvement and genetics and control of exotic and invasive weeds. In addition, each center has research projects on bioenergy, food processing, and food safety.

The four other articles in this magazine issue summarize the top accomplishments of the four utilization centers and will give you a good idea of the ongoing research at the centers.—By Rob Griesbach, Deputy Assistant Administrator, ARS. 

ARS Utilization Centers' 75th Anniversarywas published in the October 2015 issue of AgResearch Magazine.

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