The largest grant in the University of Idaho’s history is on hold, at least until November.
The U of I and U.S. Department of Agriculture officials will head to the negotiating table next month, to try to hammer out a $55 million plan to research climate-friendly farming and ranching practices.
“I’m not worried that it’s in jeopardy whatsoever,” Jodi Johnson-Maynard, the head of the U of I’s Department of Soil and Water Systems, said in a Tuesday interview. “Both parties want to see this project going forward.”
The U of I touted the record-setting grant — for a project dubbed, “Climate-Smart Commodities for Idaho: A Public-Private-Tribal Partnership” — in an Oct. 5 news release. At $55 million, the grant is twice as large as any previous award in university history.
But when Idaho Education News filed a public records request for the grant agreement with the USDA, the search came up empty. “An agreement meeting the terms of your search has not been issued or received,” said Gabriel Arroyo of the U of I’s office of general counsel.
Arroyo instead released a Sept. 14 letter from the USDA to Johnson-Maynard — setting a $55 million cap on the grant, and scheduling a Nov. 8 negotiation session.
“(That’s) the only communciation we’ve received from USDA at this point in time,” Johnson-Maynard said.
The research and the money are in limbo until the parties strike a deal. “Any costs incurred prior to agreement execution will not be reimbursed,” the USDA said in its letter.
In the meantime, U of I officials are busy trying to whittle down the size and scope of its research. Initially, university officials sought $81 million.
The U of I grant is supposed to cover three research steps. First, more than 100 Idaho farmers and ranchers would receive stipends for agreeing to test climate-friendly approaches. Second, the grant would cover technical support and troubleshooting on the test farms and ranches. Third, researchers would study the consumer market — to try to determine the demand for costlier but climate-smart products.
All of this work would happen with the smaller grant, albeit on a reduced scale, Johnson-Maynard said.
The start date is also uncertain. Given the size and scope of the grant, the feds and the university might need to hold several negotiation sessions to come up with an agreement, Johnson-Maynard said.
The U of I is one of 70 grant recipients in the feds’ “Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities” program. All told, the USDA expects to award up to $2.8 billion.
“To say it’s huge does not give it justice,” Johnson-Maynard said.