More than 48 million farm-raised birds perished in the West and Midwest last year because of highly pathogenic (H5N2) avian influenza.

This January, a turkey farm in Indiana tested positive for “high-path” avian flu, but from a different strain (H7N8). So far this year, more than 245,000 turkeys and 156,000 layers were depopulated to prevent further spread of this dangerous pathogen.

Pennsylvania’s Department of Agriculture has taken tremendous steps to help growers mitigate risks and help prevent possible avian flu outbreaks in the Keystone State. And, equally important, significant measures have been taken to put response plans in place so that the farm, food and health communities are not caught off guard if this terrible virus rears its head in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast.

One of the government’s greatest partners in avian flu preparedness and prevention has been Penn State Extension.

Penn State’s gang of animal health experts, married with their far-reaching network of local agents who enjoy solid relationships with farmers, makes its Extension perfectly suited to partner with government officials and help guide Pennsylvania’s plan and response.

In addition, mounting pressure from the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for states to meet the unrealistic milestones of the Chesapeake Bay “pollution diet,” caused state officials to call upon Penn State University. The result: Penn State will survey farmers and create an inventory of conservation Best Management Practices (BMPs) in place on the ground.

Frankly, Farm Bureau applauds this move!

In fact, we at the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau helped design the survey and encourage all Pennsylvania farmers in the Bay Watershed (regardless of size and commodity) to complete and submit the survey (http://src.survey.psu.edu/farmbmp/).

Our hope is that Penn State’s efforts will produce statistically solid evidence that farmers are doing a great number of conservation practices that the EPA has refused to acknowledge and that count toward nutrient and sediment reduction goals.

Up until now, the EPA has rejected the notion of counting farmer self-reported practices toward nutrient reduction goals, instead only crediting the farming community for cost-share projects partially paid for with federal dollars.

The survey, which is being administered by Penn State on behalf of the state Department of Environmental Protection, is entirely voluntary and confidential. No farmer’s data will be released to a government entity. Instead, Penn State researchers will randomly select one-tenth of the survey respondents and visit their farms to confirm that the information reported on the survey matches what is in place on the ground. They will then scrub personal identifiers from all the data, aggregate the information and report it to Pennsylvania officials, who will try to get farmers the credit we deserve for water quality improvements.

Penn State Extension is a trusted and objective source of information and resources, while its employees play a vital role in our agronomic, animal husbandry and food safety endeavors.

But there’s one really big problem.

Our leading experts in plant and animal health, food safety and soil science find themselves in the middle of a political “game of chicken” as Pennsylvania’s governor and the state Legislature have repeatedly failed to reach agreement on a budget.

After fully vetoing two previous budget proposals with no tax increase, the governor decided to line-item veto the Legislature’s third proposal, in order to disperse some public funds to keep public schools and human services functioning. As a result of the line-item veto, funding for Extension, research and many other agricultural priorities have been zeroed out of the existing state spending plan that was supposed to run from July 1, 2015, to June 30, 2016.

Smartly, our state government has been relying quite heavily on our Land Grant University to get our ducks in order while planning for a resilient virus that knows no boundaries, spreads quickly and wreaks financial havoc on family farms growing poultry in large climate-controlled houses and in free-range, outdoor flocks. And Penn State is doing the heavy lifting for state agencies to help get farmers the credit we deserve for environmentally friendly farm practices in place, paid for with our own money – not Uncle Sam’s dime.

But, let’s hope the wisdom of having subject matter experts with solid reputations from Extension do this important work is followed by the willingness and prudence to pay for it. If not, Penn State Extension – which cannot use tuition dollars – faces an uncertain future.