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College of ag moving forward on several big ag projects

A planned $7 million renovation of University of Idaho’s Parma Agricultural Research and Extension Center, depicted here in an artist’s rendering, is one of several major CALS projects underway or recently completed.

By Sean Ellis

Idaho Farm Bureau Federation

BOISE – Michael Parrella, dean of University of Idaho’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, has said several times over the past five years that he did not take the position to maintain the status quo.

Speaking to members of the House Agricultural Affairs Committee Jan. 26, Parrella, who took over as dean on Feb. 1, 2016, repeated his statement that he didn’t become dean to keep the status quo.

“I want to move things forward,” Parrella said.

He then gave lawmakers an overview of some of the major projects recently completed or underway at CALS that he believes will help propel the state’s farming industry to future success.

CALS oversees nine agricultural research and extension centers around the state, where scientists study issues important to Idaho’s farming and ranching community.

CALS also maintains Extension offices in 42 of Idaho’s 44 counties and those offices conducted 440,000 face-to-face contacts in 2019. 

U of I’s college of agriculture is the only institution in the state to prepare ag teachers – 97 of the state’s 115 school districts have ag programs – and 90 percent of ag teachers in Idaho have a degree from CALS.

During his presentation, Parrella highlighted at least six major projects at CALS that are currently underway or were recently completed.

One of the biggest is the Idaho Center for Agriculture, Food and the Environment, a $45 million project that Parrella said will be the nation’s largest and most advanced research center targeting the dairy and allied industries.

The main feature of CAFE, as the project is widely known, will be a 2,000-cow dairy that will be the largest research dairy of its kind in the United States.

“We are moving forward very aggressively with this” project, Parrella said.

Besides the dairy, the project will include a demonstration farm, food processing research, workforce development degrees for the state’s agricultural industry, and a Discovery Complex that will help educate people about the importance of Idaho’s farming and ranching industry.

CALS is also close to moving forward with a $7 million renovation of its Parma agricultural research station, where scientists conduct a wide array of research on multiple crops, including beans, potatoes, onions, hops, mint, tree fruit, wine and table grapes, grains and seed crops.

The project will include updated laboratories and equipment, new graduate student housing, new greenhouses and four new positions: an Extension fruit and viticulture specialist, a weed scientist, an irrigation and soil scientist and a scientist that specializes in pollination.

That would bring the total number of research faculty at the Parma center to 10 and they would study everything from bugs to weeds, water and soil.

“The work that is done there will have applications for the challenges producers face pretty much across the state,” Parrella said.

A large number of farm commissions and other ag industry stakeholders have contributed almost $3 million toward that project.

“To see their support is very, very satisfying,” Parrella said.

The college is also building a new $5 million nuclear seed potato germplasm facility on its Moscow campus. The university’s nuclear seed potato program – the “nuclear” part refers to the origin of potatoes – produces plantlets, or mini-tubers, which are then used by growers to produce plants in the field.

The new facility would allow the program to triple production, Parrella said.

From a quality perspective, this facility is where Idaho’s potato production starts, he added.

The new facility “will pay dividends for the incredibly important potato industry in the state,” Parrella said.

The new seed potato facility is co-located with a new meat science and innovation center. This $8 million project replaces an existing outdated facility and will enhance teaching, research and outreach efforts, Parrella said.

It will also give UI the ability to recruit more students.

“This facility will rally enhance our ability to respond to the needs of the meat industry,” he told legislators.

The CALS dean also brought lawmakers up to date on the Nancy M. Cummings Research, Extension and Education Center. This $3 million facility is underway but a grand opening has been delayed due to COVID-19.

This center is designed to enhance teaching, research and outreach to the livestock industry and the local community.

CALS recently opened the Rinker Rock Creek Ranch near Hailey. UI officials describe it as a 10,400-acre living laboratory that conducts research that will help land managers across the West make informed decisions about how people live, work and recreate on rangelands.

Seventeen research projects involving 11 faculty are currently under way there.

Rep. Ryan Kerby, R-New Plymouth, told Parrella that compared to the stress caused by current issues, the presentation was a breath of fresh air.

“This is a real, pleasant, professional, exciting report of the things that are going on” at CALS, Kerby said. 

He said the Parma renovation was of particular interest to him because it’s in his district.

“That research (being done there) is critical,” he said. “They are doing research that our ag people ask them to do….”

Kerby also noted that economists are forecasting record net farm income in Idaho during 2020 and he believes the myriad research being conducted at CALS’ nine agricultural research stations likely played a major role in that because it has allowed producers to stay on the cutting edge of technology and new farming practices.