University Of Idaho Parma Research Center: A Twofold Treasure

Established in 1925, the Parma Research and Extension Center at the University of Idaho, Parma, ID, came about “from the need for research and extension efforts to sustain and improve the productivity of the crops grown in southwest Idaho.” The 200-acre property houses University of Idaho faculty members whose research and extension programs focus on production, storage and other related problems of vegetables, forages, cereals, hop, mint, fruit and seed crops.

Research at Parma, however, is not limited to the field. According to the center’s website, the facility provides 5,100 square feet of greenhouse space that is utilized year-round, and there are 540 square feet of growth chamber rooms that are used for entomology research projects. Additionally, there are approximately 7,500 square feet of office space and meeting rooms for faculty and support staff, and nearly 5,000 square feet of laboratory space.

Ten faculty members conduct research and extension programs at the center, among these programs are entomology, crop management, soils, horticulture, pomology, nematology and plant pathology. Helping to carry-out these programs are 15 additional full-time support staff including research support scientists, post-doctoral fellows, scientific and technical aides, farm and maintenance crew employees and office staff.

According to facility superintendent and professor of plant science Mike Thornton, Parma is a special facility due to, among other reasons, its unique location in the heart of Idaho’s Treasure Valley region. “This station serves a unique role in that we are the only one in Idaho working on many of the high value crops grown in what is known as the Treasure Valley region of southwestern Idaho and eastern Oregon,” says Thornton. “For example, we conduct research on crops like alfalfa seed, sweet corn seed, hops, mint, onions, potatoes, apples, peaches, sugar beets and table grapes to name a few.”

The Simplot Thickens

What sets Parma apart from other land-grant university research centers is the close relationship with Boise-based J.R. Simplot Co., the 5th ranked U.S. retailer on CropLife® magazine’s CropLife 100. Simplot became involved in the center in 2008 as a cooperative partner after funding difficulties had the facility on the brink of shut down.

“At the time, the Dean was very adamant that the center would close without outside funding, so I believe we would not be in operation today without this agreement with Simplot,” says Thornton.

Terry Tindall, Ph.D. and senior agronomist with Simplot, states that the company’s goal in partnering with the University of Idaho was “to work with third-party, independent researchers and faculty in helping to develop and define some of our new fertilizer materials and better understand products and materials that we would like to have enter the production agriculture market.”

“Nothing replaces research in providing a foundation for agronomic understanding,” adds Tindall. “With the close working relationship that has been developed at Parma, we can confidently be in a better position to make recommendations for Simplot’s valued customers and local growers.”

A main benefit of the relationship for Simplot is gaining access to the physical facilities at Parma. “An added benefit for Simplot is the field tours and agronomic reviews that have taken place,” says Tindall. “For the last three summers we’ve hosted international field days with participants from over 20 different countries. Also, demonstration trials as well as research trials have been the center of attention at Parma. Lectures in a room are good to an extent, but hands-on experience is a tremendous influence for presenting new products or methods of application.”

For the university, the opportunity to work, and for students to learn, hand-in-hand with industry is a huge advantage. “What has changed (after bringing Simplot on) is that we have more direct industry input into our research and extension programs,” says Thornton. “This occurs through the Simplot cooperators, as well as other supporters like the Treasure Valley Agriculture Coalition that provide funding as well as advice on station operations. Another benefit this agreement has brought is expanding the range of groups we work with to conduct research. For example, several companies have brought products to us to get third-party efficacy data due to our relationship with Simplot.”

Improving Fertilizer

Currently, according to Tindall, most of the facility’s resources are being focused on improving nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizer-use efficiency.

“These efforts are extremely important, not only directly to growers and ag retailers who are using these products, but also to the communities in which we work,” says Tindall. “By allowing a greater proportion of these fertilizer products to be accessed and utilized by a particular crop, the less likely they are to be used in excess and loss to the environment.”

Tindall also notes that faculty and researchers are also working on solutions to help address the global food security crisis. “A long-term project of Simplot and the University of Idaho at Parma is addressing concerns related to irrigated corn production. Pushing yield goal parameters with seed populations, starter fertilizers, new genetics and enhanced efficiency fertilizers allows opportunities to address the seriousness of improving food security issues now, before we are faced with calamities in the future.”

After about four years of working in concert, local growers are reportedly quite pleased with the Simplot-University of Idaho partnership. “Growers tell us the research conducted here is very important in keeping them competitive in terms of cost of production and quality as required in a global market place,” says Thornton. “We help them use inputs like water, fertilizer and pesticides more efficiently, as well as adopt new varieties and cultural practices.  We have also been at the forefront locally in identifying and controlling new pest outbreaks.”

Adds Tindall: “Stewardship of our land and input resources continues to be discussed at Parma across regional and national geographies. While we do not have all the answers to these complex issues, the relationship between the University of Idaho and the J.R. Simplot Co. can help provide local answers that may very well be used on a national and global basis in the near future.”

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