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Parrella to stay on as U of I's ag college dean

By Sean Ellis

Idaho Farm Bureau Federation

POCATELLO – Michael Parrella, the dean of University of Idaho’s ag college, will stay in that position longer than anticipated to try to push some major projects through to completion. 

When Parrella took over as dean of UI’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences in February 2016, the expectation was that he would remain there for about five years. 

But Parrella has also said from the beginning that he didn’t become dean to maintain the status quo at CALS. 

During his time as dean, Parrella has initiated several major projects at CALS and rejuvenated others that had once held promise but had languished over the years. 

The dean recently told Idaho Farm Bureau Federation he will stay on at CALS for a few more years to try to push some big projects over the finish line. 

“I can’t (guarantee) it’s going to be another five years but we’re thinking along those lines,” he said. “I love this job. It’s incredible. It’s beyond anything that I ever really anticipated.”

Leaders of Idaho’s agricultural industry said they are excited that Parrella has decided to stay on as dean. 

“The Idaho Barley Commission appreciates Parrella’s results-oriented leadership and is grateful he will stay on at CALS longer than originally planned to see that important CALS projects come to fruition,” said IBC Administrator Laura Wilder. “The university, CALS students and all of Idaho agriculture have benefited greatly from Parrella’s work and we look forward to working with him more over the next few years.”

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

The ag college also maintains Extension offices in 42 of Idaho’s 44 counties and three reservations. In 2019, 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.

Parrella said the CALS project he is most excited about is the Idaho Center for Agriculture, Food and the Environment, a $45 million project that is being designed to 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. 

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.

“That is a transformational project,” Parrella said. 

The CAFE project has been talked about for a long time but had stalled until Parrella got it back on track. It is now moving forward quickly and the goal is to begin milking cows there by the end of 2023.

Idaho Dairymen’s Association Executive Director Rick Naerebout said IDA had assumed the CAFE project was dead at one point but Parrella “has rejuvenated it and brought some excitement back to it.”

“We’re glad that for consistency and continuity, he’s sticking around to try to see some of these big (projects) through to completion,” Naerebout said. “He’s a huge catalyst in making sure CALS initiatives get pushed forward and the CAFE project is just a great example of that.” 

Parrella held a visioning session with industry stakeholders in 2018 about the future of CALS’ agricultural research station in Parma. 

That led to a $7 million plan to renovate the center, 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 Parma 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 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, and from a quality perspective, this facility is where Idaho’s potato production starts.

“Quality potatoes start with the plantlets and the mini-tubers and that starts on the University of Idaho campus,” Parrella said. “You start with healthy plants, you’re going to get a better quality crop.”

The new seed potato facility will be 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 and enhance the college’s ability to respond to the needs of the meat industry, Parrella said. 

Efforts are underway to rename the road that the new potato germplasm and meat science center are located on to Meat and Potatoes Avenue.

Those projects will be located in a very visible part of campus and remind students and the public what CALS is all about, Parrella said. 

“Let’s remind the campus that the roots of this campus are based on agriculture,” he said. “Obviously, agriculture is the state’s most important industry from an economic perspective. This will constantly remind the campus of that through these beautiful facilities.”

Other projects Parrella has initiated or guided include:

  • The $3 million Nancy M. Cummings Research, Extension and Education Center’s new headquarters facility – designed to enhance teaching, research and outreach to the livestock industry and the local community near Salmon.
  • CALS recently opened the Rinker Rock Creek Ranch near Hailey, which is described by UI officials 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 underway there.

“It’s just been one initiative after another that (Parrella) has brought to fruition and that created a lot of excitement around CALS,” Naerebout said. 

Parrella said one of the most exciting aspects of these projects is that industry has bought into them and supported them, including financially. He feels some responsibility to help push the projects toward or over the finish line. 

“The response from industry has been phenomenal,” he said. “We need to finish these projects.”

He also credited the entire CALS team for any success the ag college has achieved. There are 220 faculty at the college currently and more than 80 have been hired in the past five years. 

“I am only as good a dean as the faculty I represent,” Parrella said. “It’s the faculty that are teaching the students, doing the research and they’re doing the Extension work. I am here representing them, representing their programs, trying to develop programs and get support to develop capital projects that reinforce what they’re doing. If we lose sight of that fact, then we need to get a new dean.”