By Sean Ellis
Idaho Farm Bureau Federation
SUN VALLEY – University of Idaho officials are close to nailing down a physical site for the university’s proposed Center for Agriculture, Food and the Environment.
Once the university has a site for the project, the financial support to build the facility should speed up, Michael Parrella, dean of UI’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, told Idaho Milk Processors Association members Aug. 10 during their annual conference.
“We feel from this point on, if we can get a physical site, we are going to see CAFE on steroids moving forward and that is very exciting,” he said.
The Idaho Legislature has approved $10 million for the center, which will focus heavily on dairy industry research but will also conduct research that will impact all aspects of Idaho agriculture.
Legislators have made an additional $5 million for CAFE contingent on the project making more progress.
UI will sell some of its assets and work with industry partners to generate the balance of funding needed for the project, which an initial feasibility study released last year estimated would cost about $45 million.
Having an actual site will make it easier for the university to raise those additional dollars, Parrella said, because people will have a vision for the center they can buy into.
UI officials are currently in negotiations to purchase the first 640 acres of a 1,200-acre site within 50 miles of Twin Falls, said Parrella, who did not disclose more details because of the ongoing negotiations.
He also laid out a somewhat new scope for the project.
The initial plan, outlined in a feasibility study released last year, was to locate research laboratories, temporary housing for faculty, students and visiting researchers, and an outreach and education center that teaches people about Idaho agriculture, on the same site as the 2,000-cow research dairy.
The new plan is to locate the laboratories, housing and outreach center on a separate, 500-acre parcel of land at the crossroads where Interstate 84 and Highway 93 meet near Twin Falls.
That high-visibility area – roughly 40,000 vehicles pass by there every day – will enable the outreach center to better reach the public with the message of how important the state’s agricultural sector is to Idaho, Parrella said.
“That location gives us the visibility and public access that is almost unprecedented in the state,” he said.
Having the outreach and education center separate from the research site is also better from a biosecurity standpoint, he said.
A food processing pilot plant that will be part of CAFE will be located on the College of Southern Idaho campus in Twin Falls, as originally planned.
The new model for CAFE, which was developed over the past few weeks, “gives us a vision and starting point for CAFE,” Parrella said. “This is a seminal moment. I think we can move forward from here.”
The Idaho Dairymen’s Association committed $2 million toward the project several years ago but IDA board members have some questions about the new CAFE model they need answered before releasing that money, said IDA Executive Director Rick Naerebout.
He said IDA members support the project, they just need those questions answered.
“There is no facility like this in the western United States,” he said. “It’s a no-brainer for us. We’d like to see this facility be built. There is some really good environmental research that could come out of it.”
That said, “It’s a new direction that hasn’t been considered before,” Naerebout added. “We just have to make sure we fully understand the scope of this new direction.”
The original target for the research dairy, he said, was to be within 20 miles of Twin Falls so it could have some good synergy with CSI.
He said dairymen are also curious about how much of the milk produced on the research dairy will be marketed and the potential impacts on the local marketplace.
Addressing that question, Parrella told IMPA members, “I think the research benefits to the industry [from the center] will offset the small amount of milk that will actually go into the market.”
Gooding dairyman Steve Ballard, a member of Dairy West’s board of directors and chairman of Idaho Farm Bureau Federation’s dairy committee, said the research the center would conduct “is research that we need to be doing and it would be valuable to the industry.”
The project was first pitched more than a decade ago but got sidelined by the most recent recession. The scope of the project has also changed a few times.
“We support the project,” Ballard said. “But it keeps changing and I just don’t know if they’ll be able to raise the money to get it off the ground. That’s the hard part about it.”
Parrella told IMPA members he is passionate about the project and the university is committed to it.
The issue with progress up until now has had to do with not having a site nailed down, he said, but having a site will make a big difference because it will provide a tangible starting point to develop detailed plans for applicable facility design and business operations.
“I think we really have the opportunity to move this project forward,” he said. “I think we can pull this off.”
Idaho, which has 600,000 dairy cows, ranks fourth in the nation in milk production and No. 3 in cheese production. Milk is Idaho’s No. 1 agricultural commodity in terms of farm-gate receipts.
CAFE will conduct dairy-related research on lagoons, nutrient management and surface and ground water contamination, which are issues that have been the subject of recent major lawsuits.
“These questions are not going to go away,” Parrella said.
The center will partner with CSI and Brigham Young University-Idaho to address the workforce development needs of dairies and food processing facilities and provide them with a new and retrained workforce, Parrella said.
“CAFE is all over that,” he said.
It will also conduct research on a wide array of topics relevant to Idaho farmers, including soil health and fertility, production management, forage cropping and agronomy, animal genetic improvement, labor management, precision agriculture, commodity risk management and food science and manufacturing.
It will educate the public, K-12 students and elected officials about Idaho agriculture.
“This is something that will benefit all of Idaho agriculture and every Idahoan,” Parrella said.