A new innovative and entrepreneurial research center created by the University of Arizona (UA) aims to solve the most pressing problems facing desert agriculture…faster.
Targeted issues in the crosshairs for the new Yuma Center of Excellence for Desert Agriculture (YCEDA) will focus on a wide variety of desert agriculture issues, including crop protection, sustainability through production efficiencies and yield maximization, water, labor, food safety, economic and environmental challenges, and more.
“The mission of the Yuma Center (Center) is to solve urgent problems in desert agricultural production and improve each aspect of desert crop production systems and economics,” said Paul Brierley, an agriculturist with an electrical engineering degree now in his second year as YCEDA’s executive director.
The ‘Yuma’ in the name is tied to the Center’s physical location in Yuma, based at the UA’s Yuma Agricultural Center. ‘Desert agriculture’ in the name refers to issues facing desert agriculture worldwide.
Target problems, solutions
Brierley says the Center will initially target problems and solutions in Yuma-grown crops and later serve a wider variety of desert-grown crops. The Center will tap evolving technologies, including significant strides made by the military, for possible application to desert farming issues.
The Center will not duplicate the work of other entities including the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension but will flexibly compliment the work, says Brierley. The Center is a public-private partnership with local, regional, and global input to effectively find answers to desert agriculture-specific issues.
Drawing from worldwide expertise on issues will allow the Center to tap broader resources for agricultural problem solving. During the Preseason Vegetable Conference held in Yuma in September, Brierley said the Center’s public-private partnership will assemble ‘hot shot teams’ to work quickly to find solutions.
In addition to UA researchers, the Center is currently drawing on expertise from the USDA, the University of California, Davis, and the University of Nebraska Innovation Campus at Lincoln.
The YCEDA is the brainchild of Shane Burgess, dean of the UA’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences in Tucson. He has turned the Center’s responsibility over to Brierley, also a UA employee, to grow the program to fruition.
Those making the key decisions on the Center’s project undertakings include a stakeholder group of growers, agribusiness groups, and others with sharp visions of the short- and long-term needs in desert agriculture.
Twenty-eight stakeholders have donated a total of $400,000 (tax deductible) as seed money to launch the Center. The stakeholders have pledged the same amount each year for three years for a combined $1.2 million contribution.
The Center will apply for grants to pursue its goals.
Burgess says the UA will provide in kind services to the Center, valued at about the same amount as the private funding, but no actual dollars.
“The Center’s mission is heavily influenced by input we receive from our stakeholder groups,” Burgess said. “The University of Arizona will not drive the mission. We will develop it from deep consultative input from our stakeholder groups.”
YCEDA advisory council
The Center’s eight-member advisory council will advise on which projects to pursue. Council members are mostly from vegetable growing regions in the greater Yuma and Salinas, Calif. regions. These regions produce about 85 percent of the U.S. year round supply of vegetables.
Council members include: Chairman Robby Barkley, Barkley Ag, Yuma; Vice-Chair Vic Smith, JV Farming, Inc., Yuma; John D’Arrigo, D’Arrigo Brothers Company of California, Salinas; Jon Jessen, founder of the Gowan Company, Yuma; Kelly Keithly, Keithly-Williams Seeds, Yuma; Steve Martori, Martori Farms, Scottsdale; Mark Smith, Smith Farms Company of Yuma, Yuma; and Mike Antle, Tanimura and Antle, Salinas.
“The thought that we can have this public-private partnership with issues unique to desert agriculture is a pretty exciting opportunity,” says council vice-chair Vic Smith, who grows leafy greens and specialty herbs in the Yuma area.
The first agricultural problem the Center will tackle is the disease fusarium wilt of lettuce. Fusarium wilt is caused by the soil-borne fungus Fusarium oxysporum.
According to the University of California IPM website, fusarium wilt symptoms include yellowing and stunting of older plants and yellowing, stunting, and the death of seedlings. Infected plants wilt, lower leaves turn yellow and dry, xylem tissue turns brown, and the plant can die.
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To help launch the fusarium wilt effort, the Center will host the International Symposium on Fusarium Wilt of Lettuce in Yuma on Nov. 12-13. Researchers from Japan, Italy, Brazil, California, and Arizona will participate, along with desert produce growers.
Brierley says the symposium will mark the first time for fusarium wilt researchers worldwide to come together in one location to discuss this serious plant disease and potential solutions.
“Fusarium wilt disease was chosen since there is really no cure for it,” Brierley said.
The researchers will share their work and potential solutions. Growers will share their experiences to control fusarium wilt in the field. The group will visit a nearby UA fusarium wilt tolerant variety trial. On the final day, the group will huddle to map out ways to jointly develop solutions on the disease.
Fusarium wilt - huge economic losses
As a grower, Smith says fusarium wilt creates many problems on his ranches in the Yuma area. He estimates financial losses from fusarium wilt in the $250 million range annually in the greater Yuma area for all growers.
“We are seeing more and more ranches impacted by fusarium wilt. During September and October, (some) fields are loaded with fusarium and its getting worse each year,” Smith said.
The disease prevents him from planting some fields in lettuce in September and October which takes some ranches out of logical crop rotation. Smith supports the Center’s efforts and the upcoming conference to help surface answers to this disease issue.
“We really need to bring in all of the knowledge we can and figure out how to mitigate this problem.”
Beyond the wilt issue, the next pest-disease issue the Center will tackle is the bagrada bug, Bagrada hilaris, a stink bug which attacks various vegetable crops, weedy mustards, and several ornamental plants within the mustard family (Brassicaceae).
The YCEDA’s overall problem-solving mission is modeled after the U.S. government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects (DARPA) program, which invented the Internet.
For more than 50 years, DARPA’s mission has focused on pivotal investments in breakthrough technologies for national security. DARPA has more than 200 government employees in six technical offices who oversee 250 research and development programs.
Tapping the military
Brierley and others are already talking with military-based groups, exploring how technology developed for military success could be tweaked into solutions on the farm.
For example, the military developed knowledge to precisely detect the disease anthrax caused by the bacterium Bacillus anthracis. Most forms of the disease are lethal.
Brierley’s focus will determine whether anthrax detection technology could be modified to detect E. coli and other pathogens in farm fields prior to harvest and at processing facilities.
Other technologies the Center will address would focus on detecting plant fungi in a field before it spreads to other plants. Brierley says this would allow the grower to spot treat only the infected part of the field, instead of the entire field, which in turn would reduce agriculture’s environmental footprint and offer economic savings to growers.
The YCEDA council has also discussed drones and mechanization. While commercial mechanical lettuce thinners have been on the market for a short time and do a relatively good job, the Center is working with a leading commercial military company to tap sensor technology.
This could identify precise locations in the field for needed lettuce seedlings, geo reference each plant, and then use a laser to kill unwanted plants.
Some mechanical harvesters use chemical to kill unwanted seedlings. The laser method would eliminate chemical use and reduce labor.
In another area, military technology could help growers better understand underground root growth and root-soil interaction through underground phenotyping. Brierley says this technology could help maximize soil additive efficacy in the soil to improve soil health and boost fertility and crop yields.
The Center has hired a company with military expertise to build custom wireless sensor modules to pursue this project.
In addition to stakeholder and grant dollars to fund the Center, Burgess says the UA could gain licenses and patents on new processes, sell the intelligence, and then reinvest those dollars into the center for future desert agriculture projects.