Increased use of technology and increased public-private funding is leading to more promptly offering solutions to problems in agriculture. A new resource using these features is in place to assist growers in the Yuma, Arizona,-Salinas, California, area with solutions to problems that affect desert agriculture and profitability. Industry leaders and the University of Arizona (UA) have joined forces to create a public-private partnership and recently launched the Yuma Center of Excellence for Desert Agriculture.

Shane Burgess, dean, of UA College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, said, “The Yuma Center of Excellence for Desert Agriculture fills a gap in our system by providing a rapid response to problems.” Burgess noted that multiple changes have occurred in agriculture in the last century, with extensive changes in just the last decade.

Crops are furrow irrigated by Colorado River water and this illustrates importance of water in desert agriculture.ALL PHOTOS COURTESY OF KURT NOLTE, UA YUMA AGRICULTURAL CENTER, UA COLLEGE OF AGRICULTURE AND LIFE SCIENCES; JOHN PALUMBO, UA; LYNN KETCHUM, UA; AND ANNIE DECKEY, YUMA CATHOLIC HIGH SCHOOL.

Yuma is known as the winter vegetable capital of the world, and 90 percent of leafy greens consumed in the United States and Canada come through Yuma. The industry produces an estimated $3.2 billion economic return. Burgess noted that in addition to rapid response to problems, The Center will provide proprietary benefits for research findings without having to wait for patents.

Paul Brierley, director of the Center, said, “We are bringing teams together from various institutions and industry with specific missions.” The partners involved in the creation of the Center have committed to funding it for three years with $1.2 million to provide rapid response to agricultural threats. The Center will complement research by UA Yuma Experiment Station and UA Cooperative Extension. An Advisory Committee for the Center will identify problems for research. Brierley and Kurt Nolte, director of UA Yuma Experiment Station and Yuma County Cooperative Extension, together manage research programs that include a 500-acre experimental site.

Immediate challenges

While a wide range of threats to area farmers may be identified by the Advisory Committee, three primary priorities have been established.

Downey mildew in spinach requires prompt attention. With an immediate release of funds, greater insight into this disease before the winter growing season returns is possible.

With the continuing drought in California, more growing may be shifted to Yuma. Nolte said, “Despite high water application efficiencies in the Yuma area, we are always seeking methods that improve salinity management and water application to fields.” Previous UA research, particularly that of researcher Jeff Silvertooth, identified ways to apply water most efficiently based on plant needs. A similar approach will be sought to apply water most efficiently to avoid leaching based on salinity levels, soil texture and structure, emphasizing the science behind the leaching requirement to better manage soil salinity.

Baby leaf lettuce grows in a test site field.

Food safety is essential to maintain a viable produce industry. Nolte said, “Since the 2006 E. coli outbreak and the introduction of Arizona and California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreements, the fresh produce industry has been a national leader in minimizing microbial contamination risks. Among the risks to be addressed are animal intrusion, soil amendments, water quality, and worker health and hygiene.”

Head lettuce is harvested.

Technology’s role

“The use of technology is expected to increase in solving any problem,” Brierley said. He cited the military use of sensing technologies. “We would expect to incorporate precision agriculture in real-time pathogen detection. We can know the status of every acre and maybe even every plant so fields can be treated in hot spots versus entire fields. Sometimes when mildew is found it’s too late to save the field. We want to mature the military’s technology and use it increasingly in agriculture. We would be using fewer chemicals and having less cost.”

Brierley cited the importance of conserving water through increased use of new technology for irrigation efficiency, a particularly high focus for users of the lower Colorado River water which serves Yuma. He noted the significance of developing machines that can detect when each plant is ready to be harvested.

Shane Burgess, Dean, UA College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Yuma offers ideal growing conditions for winter growing, with summer growing done in Salinas where temperatures are not so high. Extending the winter growing season in Yuma will offer a major advantage with the continued drought in California affecting irrigation water availability. Because Fusarium wilt in lettuce is a major problem with high temperatures, new varieties with resistance or tolerance to Fusarium wilt will be needed.

“We will approach this need through two primary ways,” Brierley said. “We will support variety development research with seed companies, and we will hold a symposium. The symposium will bring researchers from across the world to share knowledge, get feedback and pursue the most promising research.” The major symposium is tentatively targeted for November 2015.

John Palumbo, UA Entomologist; Paul Brierley; and Kurt Nolte check a lettuce test plot at UA Yuma Agricultural Center for signs of Fusarium wilt disease.

Industry driven

Robby Barkley, advisory committee chairman, said, “We’re trying to do more with fewer resources, and we’re limited only by our own ability to imagine.” Barkley is CEO of Barkley Ag Enterprises and is one of approximately 30 partners in the Center. “First of all, I’m a farmer,” he said. His family first came to Yuma in the 1880s, and the Barkley family has been farming continuously in the Yuma Valley since 1912.

Celery crop is ready for harvest.

Barkley noted that Yuma growers have always been innovative in their approaches. The Center will help consolidate that innovation as different ideas and research come together. He said, “I see the Yuma Center of Excellence for Desert Agriculture as an investment in the future. People don’t always understand agriculture.” He cited the need to keep food production for the United States primarily within the United States.

Broccoli is among major crops in Yuma area.

Barkley emphasized that the public-private partnership will complement traditional UA research. While grants from various sources will be sought in the future, Barkley cited the three-year funding for The Yuma Center in place. “We have a three-year window to prove its success,” he said.

Non-infected spinach contrasts with crop field showing signs of Downey mildew with yellowing leaves.

Providing worldwide research benefits

Kurt Nolte hosts annual Field Day at UA Yuma Agricultural Center.

The Center will provide solutions that can be implemented in worldwide desert agriculture. More than 40 percent of the world’s agriculture is on arid lands. While the primary purpose of the Center is to address problems to help assure area farmers of profitable operation, the Center is expected to increase worldwide recognition of Yuma as a premier agricultural production and research region. The Center will be a leader for adapting existing technology to agriculture and expanding public-private funding in developing needed resources to assure profitable agricultural operations and a continuing food supply.