Dirt Deal

At the 10 University of California agricultural research centers scattered throughout the state, theory and practice meet every day on the ultimate proving ground. These are the laboratories where academic farmers with degrees in soil science and plant physiology test new ways of growing the cash crops that drive California''s $25 billion agriculture industry. At the center in Irvine, researchers study avocados and oranges. In Browns Valley, they raise cattle. At the tiny center in Santa Clara, which is slated to close in the next few years, they''re testing alternatives to methyl bromide on strawberries and breeding drought-resistant grasses for city parks. Cooperative extension programs disseminate the results of the research to farmers and gardeners statewide through workshops and publications.

Traditionally the research and extension centers have been strategically scattered to test California''s various climates. It would make sense, then, for the Central Coast, one of the state''s largest crop-producing regions and home to a bevy of unique microclimates, to have a research center. But it doesn''t. Not yet, anyway.

On May 16, Sen. Bruce McPherson (R-Santa Cruz) introduced Senate Resolution 25, a non-binding piece of legislation recognizing the need for a University of California Research and Extension Center on the Central Coast. SR 25 sailed through the senate, and although it neither guarantees a center nor appropriates money for one, it does give a unanimous vote of confidence to the local farming community, which has long felt the absence of a research facility.

"We''re the only major ag region in the state of California that doesn''t have a research center, and that''s criminal," says Sharan Lanini, executive director for the Monterey County Farm Bureau, a nonprofit organization that advocates for farmers and ranchers. "To some degree the university figured we had the U.S. Department of Agriculture station here, but USDA does more long-term, big-picture research--like potential disease problems, breeding problems. What we''re looking for is a practical research center in the field for day-to-day problems."

The ag research center is still very much in the embryonic phase, but boosters have an idea of what they''d like to see. Jim Bogart, president of the Grower-Shipper Association of Central California, says that the area''s patchwork of climates would benefit from a main center and a constellation of satellite offices. "We have unique microclimates here on the Central Coast that really can''t be duplicated in a lab in Davis or Riverside," he explains. "Field research and applied research, to be most effective, should be conducted in a region that''s representative." The hub-and-satellite plan, complete with state-of-the-art laboratory and testing fields, would cost $5-6 million. It would serve eight counties ranging from Santa Barbara to San Mateo.

Although SR 25 is encouraging, the appearance of legislative support is not enough to convince the state to cough up the money for the center. The local farming community must show its commitment to the project by coming up with land for it.

According to UC spokesman Steve Nation, the university typically relies on donations of property for its research centers. For this center, he says, administrators are hoping for a donation of 200-400 acres.

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Historically, that''s been a stumbling block in Monterey County. Area farmers have been hoping for a center since 1984, when a tight UC budget conspired with the lack of available land to quash a concerted effort to get a center. Lanini and Monterey County Supervisor Judy Pennycook, who serves on UC President Richard Atkinson''s agricultural advisory committee, indicate that they''ve held initial discussions with potential donors. But their needs are specific, so the list of potential benefactors is short: Everyone agrees it''s crucial that the donated land be representative of the most active ag land. Says Steve Nation, "It would be better to have land on the Salinas Valley floor than on table land, where they grow grapes and such."

The current effort to bring a research center to Monterey County sprouted two years ago when a strong team of supporters began working together: Lanini, Bogart, County Ag Commissioner Eric Lauritzen, Sonya Varea Hammond of the UC Cooperative Extension and Pennycook.

In December the board of supervisors passed a resolution calling for a local research center. The group is now turning its energies to the next step: getting cash. They''re working closely with Sen. McPherson''s office to get $600,000 from the university to plan the facility. The money would come in the form of a bill that the consortium is hoping McPherson will introduce next month when the state legislature reconvenes.

The consensus is that things look good. "I have every reason to think we''ll get our facility," says Pennycook. "In our most recent meeting in May, President Atkinson basically said, ''If you can get the land, we can get the money."

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