Associated Press

TWIN FALLS, Idaho (AP) -- The state Board of Education has approved the University of Idaho's plans to sign a five-year agreement with J.R. Simplot Co. aimed at keeping a cash-strapped agricultural research center open until 2014.

The Parma center, which was founded in 1925 to sustain and improve the productivity of crops grown in southwest Idaho, was one of three university research sites slated for closure because of state budget cuts during the past two years.

J.R. Simplot Co., a large food processing company that's one of the main suppliers of McDonald's french fries, would give the research center in southwestern Idaho $300,000 each year as part of the agreement the board approved Thursday.

In exchange, the university will share facilities with Simplot researchers at the center and allow the company access to up to 50 acres for crop studies and development. They'll use 20 to 30 acres on average, said John Hammel, dean of the UI College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

The university would also dedicate half of a research faculty position for the coordination, oversight and some maintenance of the company's research at the site, as well as providing tillage and irrigation for Simplot's research at another site in the Parma region.

Board president Paul Agidius said the partnership sets a good example for public universities forging partnerships with private industry groups.

Board president Paul Agidius said the partnership sets a good example for public universities forging partnerships with private industry groups.

"I applaud them for what they've done. This is something we've talked about and, as far as I know, this is the first time we've been able to do that," Agidius said.

"It sets a good precedence because if we can make this look good, we can show other industry sectors that it would be to their benefit," he said.

The school faces a $4.7 million loss in state funding for a dozen agriculture and extension centers amid state-mandated budget cuts.

A committee of farmers and lawmakers recommended that the university close agricultural centers in Parma, Tetonia and Sandpoint to help eliminate a then-$3.2 million deficit caused by state cuts during the last fiscal year.

In September, the university's research and extension centers lost another $1.5 million as public universities and colleges statewide were ordered to cut spending to help make up for state revenue shortfalls.

The plan to close Parma by Dec. 31 was delayed after criticism from Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter and southwestern Idaho fruit growers who use the station to do research on their crops.

The university's research at the Parma site focuses on production, storage and solving problems related to vegetables, forages, cereals, hop, mint, fruit and seed crops.

Hammel told the board that research centers facing closure in Tetonia and Sandpoint will stay in operation at least through June 2010 because of pledges from industry groups.

For example, the Idaho Potato Commission and the Idaho Barley Commission are expected to help cover operations at the Tetonia research center until the end of the fiscal year, he said.

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