Agriculture is big business in Arizona, and industry leaders in Yuma County are teaming up with the University of Arizona to arm growers with science and information they need to swiftly tackle threats to their profitability.
The recently launched Yuma Center of Excellence for Desert Agriculture - YCEDA – will provide the latest research and information in pest management, food safety, plant diseases, water conservation and more.
Yuma, the winter vegetable capital of the world, is home to more than 175 different crops, with an annual gross economic return of $3.2 billion. About 90 percent of leafy greens consumed in the United States and Canada in the winter come through Yuma.
Yuma and the state depend on this economic engine that can fall prey to diseases, pests, drought, frost, labor, wildlife and even public relations challenges. The public-private partnership was created to provide rapid response to issues important for desert crop production systems and the sustainable, responsible practices of local farmers.
More than two dozen industry partners from Yuma and Salinas, Calif., have invested in the center, together committing more than $1.1 million over the next three years. The YCEDA's initiatives will be guided by on-the-ground industry needs. These needs are shared in arid lands around the world—approximately 40 percent of all agricultural land worldwide is arid and so this is no small thing.
"One outcome we are planning for is that the YCEDA, together with Yuma County Cooperative Extension and the Yuma Experiment Station, will make UA's Yuma operations the pre-eminent place in the world for basic, translational and applied research in arid-land agriculture," said Shane Burgess, vice provost and dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
A search has identified finalists for the YCEDA executive directorship.
"One of the goals of the center is to provide immediate solutions and impact," said Kurt Nolte, who directs UA's Yuma Experiment Station and Yuma County Cooperative Extension. Nolte chairs the Yuma Center of Excellence for Desert Agriculture's executive director search committee.
For more than a century, the UA's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and UA Cooperative Extension have provided solutions to problems faced by growers. The Yuma Center of Excellence for Desert Agriculture takes these partnerships to a new level.
"In the world that we live in as research faculty, it can be difficult to obtain funding in a rapid way to combat a particular problem that producers face," Nolte said. "This is similar to a hot shot firefighting effort where these funds would be available immediately to deal with issues in a very rapid way."
The center's director will work with an advisory council to initiate the most effective and efficient responses to a variety of issues – from infectious disease to food safety – that may be encountered by agriculturalists. Problems that normally would require three years of research might be solvable within a few months under the new model.
One immediate need is finding strategies to battle Downy mildew disease in spinach.
"We don't have a clear mechanism for managing this disease," Nolte said. "This committee is talking about releasing funds quickly to gain greater insight on this disease before the winter produce season kicks in."
Also high on the priority list is combating a pest that carries a virus that damages citrus.
"Ongoing drought conditions are also a major concern and the center will be mobilized to assist desert growers if water restrictions become real," Nolte said.
YCEDA will tap into the research and knowledge of UA faculty as well as experts from around the country and world.
Speedy solutions are critical to the success of the industry, Nolte said. "Napa is to wine as Yuma is to agriculture. Well over 50 percent of Yuma's economic base is derived from agricultural commodities that are grown here."
He believes the center has the potential to attract new companies to partner in identifying and funding prioritized research.
"One of the benefits of having a center with the horsepower behind it is to attract outside companies to come to Arizona and invest in the infrastructure within our university," Nolte said.
Investors in the center could come from as far away as Mexico, Israel and the Middle East, where similar growing conditions exist, Nolte said.
Chairing the YCEDA advisory committee is investor Robby Barkley, president & CEO of Yuma's Barkley Ag Enterprises, which produces leafy greens, cauliflower, broccoli, grains, melons, cotton and more. His family first came to Yuma in the 1880s.
He called the center "an investment in our future."
"Our goal is to have a world-class research group readily available to us," Barkley said. "What is the best solution to a problem today will be improved upon in the future, so we want to develop a system that continues to feed those better solutions to us."
The goal of the center is to help growers be more profitable. "We are trying to do more with fewer resources, and we need to make sure that food production for our country stays in our country," Barkley said.
The Yuma Center will garner future funds from philanthropy, competitive grants and contracts with industry.
Vic Smith, CEO of the Yuma-based JV Smith Companies, is also an investor and advisor to YCEDA. Through JV Farms, Smith farms more than 7,500 acres of winter vegetables, including lettuce, spinach and broccoli.
By investing in YCEDA, Smith hopes access to the latest information will boost his industry and profits.
"What I like about this is it's a very quick, responsive approach to dealing with problems. When you have a problem, you can't wait for the results of a five-year research grant. You need answers now, and that is the hope for this center."