PEORIA — Peoria's Ag Lab, and other similar facilities around the country, got a new lease on life Wednesday.
Lawmakers in the U.S. House Appropriations Committee advanced a Department of Agriculture funding plan that includes money for the facilities, contrary to the Trump administration's proposal in May to shutter the facilities.
The National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research in Peoria was one of 17 such sites that had been targeted for closure as part of a budget plan that would have sliced agriculture funding by more than 20 percent. It employs about 200 people.
"For decades, this lab has kept Peoria at the center of innovation in our agricultural economy — they’ve developed technology that has benefitted our troops, our farmers and American consumers every single day," said U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Moline, whose district includes the lab. "While our work is far from over, I’ll continue fighting to protect this lab from closure under President Trump’s budget.”
U.S. Rep. Darin LaHood agreed that the move signaled a victory.
“Our community’s advocacy has truly paid off today, with the agriculture appropriations bill containing full funding for the Peoria Ag lab," the Peoria Republican said. "The USDA Research Lab in Peoria has accomplished incredible work over the years, which is why it was so critical that it receive the federal funding it needs to continue its work. I applaud the work of my colleagues on the House Appropriations Committee for including full funding for the Peoria Ag lab and will continue to work alongside my colleague Rep. Bustos to ensure that this funding is maintained as Congress continues the appropriations process.”
The duo led the effort to advocate for retaining the Peoria site, work that Bustos called "a good, old shoe-leather approach to legislation." Their work including rounding up support for — and signatures from most of the delegation on — a letter to members of the appropriations committee and a separate one to President Trump opposing the proposed closure. Bustos met individually with Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to press the case for keeping Peoria's complex open.
Though Wednesday's move represents a reversal, the fate of the Ag Lab is far from certain. The funding plan still has to pass the House, then the Senate — where the body's No. 2 Democrat, Illinois' U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, sits on the appropriations committee — and be signed into law by the president. That process could take many more months.
"We will stay on this aggressively and vigorously, and our goal in the end is that this makes it all the way through the process," Bustos said.
The Ag Lab is the largest of four such regional research laboratories, along with 13 other, smaller research facilities the Department of Agriculture operates under the Agricultural Research Service. The Peoria lab's history dates to 1940.
About 90,000 different microbes are stored there, and the lab became famous during World War II after its discovery of the method used to mass-produce penicillin. Since then, it has contributed numerous other developments, including the development of Xantham gum, a thickening agent used in just about every salad dressing, along with numerous other food products.
More than 40 research projects are under way there under the department, with another 70 being conducted in partnership with private industry, Bustos said in a recent interview.
Chris Kaergard covers politics and government. He can be reached at email@example.com or 686-3255. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisKaergard.