Idaho dairy research center gains traction

Michael Parrella, dean of the University of Idaho College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, gives an update Aug. 10 on efforts to establish a world-class dairy research facility in south-central Idaho during the Idaho Milk Processors Association annual conference in Sun Valley.

SUN VALLEY, Idaho — The University of Idaho has had to tweak its plans for a world-class research and teaching facility to address the environmental and economic sustainability of animal agriculture and food processing.

But the Center for Agriculture, Food and the Environment — called CAFE for short — will be one step closer to fruition if the university is successful in negotiating a price for farmland that lies within 50 miles of Twin Falls.

“I think we have the site,” Michael Parrella, dean of the university’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, said during the Idaho Milk Processors Association annual meeting on Friday.

“If we can pull off this site acquisition, we’ll see CAFE on steroids” and things will move forward quickly, he said.

CAFE will be the largest research dairy in the U.S. and the only one addressing milk production in an arid climate.

“It is phenomenally important,” he said.

Idaho’s milk and dairy production is the third- or fourth-largest in the U.S. and is a force to be reckoned with. The research center will address the impact of dairy, focusing on environmental, economic and social sustainability of milk production and food processing, he said.

Dairies, even large ones, are not going to be able to address these issues individually. CAFE’s mission is research, teaching and vocational training and outreach and extension, he said.

The university had decided to purchase and retrofit an existing dairy with 1,000 acres of associated cropland instead of building from scratch. It was looking for a dairy on scale with Idaho’s industry — about 2,000 cows — that is highly visible and affordable and has animal permits and water rights, he said.

“That dairy doesn’t exist,” he said.

The university also had been looking for property in Jerome County, with buy-in from the county’s economic development community, but it couldn’t find anything. So it started looking in surrounding counties, found a site that would work for the research farm and is now in negotiations with the owners, he said.

The plan now is to have a small on-site laboratory at the outlying research farm with a larger laboratory, outreach and extension center and a dormitory at the junction of Highway 93 and Interstate 84 in Jerome County, which will provide visibility and public access. An associated food-processing pilot plant will be at the College of Southern Idaho in Twin Falls.

The new plan just developed over the past two weeks, he said.

The 1,200-acre property is divided into three parcels, and the university is focused on buying the first parcel of 640 acres. It is hoping to partner with the Idaho Dairymen’s Association, which has earmarked $2 million for CAFE, to help purchase the first parcel, he said.

There isn’t currently a dairy on the property, but it is been set up for one — with a constructed dairy lagoon, animal permits and water rights dating to 1953. The university will build a research dairy and gradually build the herd, he said.

“I am passionate about this, UI is committed and I think you are all committed to it, too,” he said.

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