There have been some political calculations to satisfy various counties and constituencies, as well as a longer timeline, but it now appears a modern agricultural research center is moving ahead in Southern Idaho.
The effort is being led by the University of Idaho’s College of Agriculture, but there are many other players, including industry groups, other state colleges, and individual contributors. Just this summer, a decision was made to build the center itself in Jerome County, as a public, tourist-oriented education venue on a high-traffic site at Crossroads Point at the Hwy. 93-Interstate 84 interchange. Think of it as a Disney Epcot Center to showcase Idaho agriculture.
A 2,000-cow research dairy has been acquired some 50 miles east in Minidoka County; a third component, a food-processing and innovation center, will be on the College of Southern Idaho campus in Twin Falls,
The three locations thus reflect three of Southern Idaho’s counties and political legislative districts, a consideration often made on high-profile projects. “What’s-in- it-for-us?” thinking is very much a part of Idaho’s distinct regions; always has been and probably always will be.
The idea for a Center for Agriculture, Food and Environment (CAFÉ) has been considered for nearly two decades by forward-looking leaders in the agricultural sectors as well as academics and political leaders.
While in the Idaho Legislature, I attended an eyeball-to-eyeball group meeting with project supporters, other legislators and then-governor C.L. “Butch” Otter, who made it clear that the state’s financial commitment was solid, but not an open checkbook. He said he’d approve $10 million initially, with another $5 million once progress was shown, but that the other parties would need to raise the rest of the estimated total cost of $45 million.
It’s coming together, a piece at a time. The dairy and acreage in Minidoka County was acquired in February for $4.5 million, and the Crossroads Point site, announced in July, was $900,000. Both purchases also included substantial “in kind” discounts from market valuation. The third piece, at CSI, would go on land that is already owned publicly.
The three-part center is envisioned to do large-scale research on both the nutrient side of agriculture as well as waste management. Both now seem intractable problems, but they’re not. Like many examples of human progress, they need research, testing and application in real-world situations.
Nutrient overloads from fertilizers and various non-point sources are a growing concern for Idaho water, particularly in Southern Idaho with its porous bedrock formations. Agricultural productivity is often secured by chemical applications, but monitoring shows clearly that water quality is affected as well.
Waste management from livestock operations has been worked on for decades, but isn’t fully solved. Critics and political environmentalists continue to assail Magic Valley agricultural practices on both fronts and wise political leaders know both issues need more attention to sustain the state’s emerging role as a major western agricultural producer.
It’s not a stretch to say that either hurdle could threaten Idaho’s entire agricultural economy, so there’s plenty of incentive to do the needed research on both.
Critics don’t appreciate this upside; naysayers have been predicting world starvation and a degraded planet for decades. Sound progress on both nutrient and waste management is essential in the emerging agriculture of tomorrow. With research and progress on these fronts, Idaho can emerge as one of the nation’s top “food baskets” for future decades.
Placing a center like CAFÉ in Southern Idaho also makes strategic sense. as it puts the research operations near where the agriculture industry is already thriving. And it dovetails nicely with the important agricultural extension centers at Kimberly and Aberdeen.
It also puts more emphasis on the research sector of Magic Valley agriculture, what Chobani’s CEO Hamdi Ulukaya calls the “Silicon Valley of Food.” The company opened a new research facility this month in Twin Falls and is already bringing in more scientists and researchers.
Private sector initiatives from Chobani, Glanbia and others are already making major improvements based on consumer preferences and research development; producers are already testing and using new technologies across the valley for “hands free” milking and nutrient point-specific application.
The center’s cooperative model for U of I, CSI and other ag management programs at BYU-Idaho and elsewhere will dovetail nicely with those initiatives. As university-based programs, the plan is for them to produce a new generation of scientists, researchers, and agricultural managers for the region, state and nation.
Long-term, the center also reflects a shift of agricultural education away from a distant (400 plus miles away) University of Idaho in Moscow, a topic officially off the table, but visible over the far horizon in the years ahead. Nimble response isn’t something usually we associate with place-bound schools, but adapting to where the agricultural industry is concentrated is an important new development.
I write about these initiatives in my new book on Southern Idaho’s recent trends and how they’ve affected our cultural values, now out on Amazon.com. (Tradition & Progress: Southern Idaho’s Growth Since 1990, Ridenbaugh Press.)
To be sure, some of the center’s components aren’t fully defined, nor is total industry support fully assured. For example, it’s never been clear why student and faculty housing (essentially dormitories) are needed at Crossroads, which is less than five miles from Twin Falls city, unless it’s to showcase local economic development efforts. Anyone who thinks students won’t drive into Twin for the evenings doesn’t know students very well. Housing seems a component best left to the local private sector; we’re not building a center in the “Middle of Nowhere” after all.
A clear “upside” benefit for a CAFÉ center like this is its importance to the overall growth of the valley. Over time, like the new Magic Valley Regional Medical Center (2011) and the Mormon Temple (2008), the CAFÉ center will add to Southern Idaho’s array of amenities and significant institutions.
It’s another example of Southern Idaho “coming of age” in this new time and century. We are lucky indeed as a region to have this project moving forward.