TWIN FALLS — Planners for a new agricultural research center in the Magic Valley are milking every opportunity to create one of the world’s premiere research facilities.
“This is the largest and best research dairy facility in the United States,” Michael Parrella, dean of the University of Idaho’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, told the Times-News recently. “Could be in the world. ... It’s something we can hang our hat on, that we’re going to do better than anybody else.”
Before coming to Idaho, Parrella was the chairman of the Department of Entomology and Nematology and associate dean of agricultural sciences at the University of California, Davis, which is home to an agricultural research center of its own, the California Institute of Food and Agricultural Research. He would head the Magic Valley facility if it comes to fruition.
One thing that would make a center here unique, Parrella said, is that it would be big enough for its research to be applicable to the scale of the dairy industry in Idaho. Parrella said the planned center here would be on about 1,000 acres with 2,000 cows, contrasting it with the Dairy Teaching and Research Facility at Davis, which has about 100 cows.
Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter first floated the idea of a dairy research center in the Magic Valley a decade ago, but it was shelved due to the recession. This year, though, state lawmakers approved the first $10 million in funding for the Center for Agriculture, Food and the Environment, or CAFE. The plan is for the educational institutions and industry groups involved to come up with $10 million per group, or $20 million total, this year, after which the state would allocate another $5 million in 2018.
While a site hasn’t been picked yet, Parrella said that, ideally it would be placed within 20 to 25 miles of the College of Southern Idaho’s campus. UI is taking the lead, but the idea is that other schools in the area and state — CSI, Idaho State University, Brigham Young University-Idaho, Boise State University — would be involved. Parrella said BYU-Idaho has expressed particular interest so far, since it would like a dairy facility for its students.
“We look at it as a regional facility,” he said.
The feasibility study on the project is already done, and Parrella said they concluded buying some land and building a new dairy would make more sense than retrofitting an existing one. And the vision for the facility has gotten bigger. It was originally pictured as just being part of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, but Parrella wants to involve other departments, such as UI’s colleges of Natural Resources and of Business and Economics.
“I think there’s an opportunity for the whole campus to be engaged from an educational perspective,” he said.
The primary focus would still be dairy, but Parrella also wants to make agronomics (study of plants and land use), forage and food processing part of the CAFE’s mission, noting the latter would tie in with the dairy processors in the area. Parrella said he wants it to be a “farm to fork” facility in terms of what it studies and teaches. Some research focuses, he said, would likely include water and nutrient management and ways to minimize the dairy industry’s environmental footprint.
Parrella hopes the CAFE will become a place where students in the Magic Valley can get a bachelor’s degree without leaving the area.
“That’s an issue with recruiting undergraduate students,” he said.
Parrella said the university has been working on fundraising to make sure the money is in place in time. Some of the money will come from selling the former Caine Veterinary Teaching Center in Caldwell later this year. Parrella said he expects the CAFE’s construction to start in 2019.
“We have to have a path forward and we think we’re getting there,” he said.
Parrella is also looking to improve the college’s existing programs. Last year, UI launched a project to make improvements to Rock Creek Ranch near Hailey and graze some cows from UI’s Nancy M. Cummings Research, Extension and Education Center on the property.
Parrella said this would afford opportunities to investigate questions such as the impact of grazing on endangered species and fire risk and how to manage land for public access as well. Improving UI’s livestock research, he said, is important since livestock make up a significant percentage of the state’s agriculture but the current research focus is mostly on plants.
Parrella also wants to upgrade the existing research and extension centers, and do a better job with faculty retention by providing more support for the half of the college’s faculty that works off of the Moscow campus, replacing aging equipment at the research and extension centers and by making pay more competitive with the other universities with which UI competes. Parrella said he wants to move toward a pay scale that rewards professors for performance, looking at factors such as undergraduate student retention, how much research money they bring in and teaching hours put in outside of classes.