PARMA — After being slated for closure in 2009, the University of Idaho Parma Research and Extension Center survived the financial crisis and university budget cuts. It has far from thrived though, according to Michael Parrella, dean of the university's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
The facilities at the center are “embarrassing,” he said, and “in need of some upgrades.”
Despite the research center's weathered look, Parrella said he saw promise in Parma when he accepted his position as the dean, and last year proposed a $7 million collaborative upgrade.
Located about a mile north of Parma, the 200-acre center focuses on research and extension programs in production, storage and related problems of vegetable, forages, cereals, hop, mint, fruit and seed crops. According to the center's website, it has devoted 120 acres to row crop and hop research and 30 acres to tree fruit and small fruit research. The center also uses a 5,100-square-foot greenhouse for fruit and vegetable research.
“The soil and plant health research done in Parma goes beyond those growers,” Parrella said. “The idea is that Parma represents crop diversity in Idaho. More than 40 crops are grown there, and the research done in Parma has statewide impact.”
The upgrade calls on the agriculture industry to contribute $3 million, the state to contribute $3 million and the college to contribute the final $1 million.
University of Idaho spokeswoman Carly Schoepflin said so far the center, which operates on a $1.1 million budget, has raised $2.57 million from the agriculture industry, 80% of its goal.
Parrella said the university made “a push” last legislative session to ask the state for the $3 million, but he said the budget for higher education ended up being less than expected and the line item on University of Idaho’s request for funding for Parma was cut.
The university plans to request the funding again next session, he said.
Parrella said he is confident the Legislature will fund Parma next session because last summer members of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee visited the facility and “saw how badly the labs and everything needed improvement.”
State Rep. Scott Syme, R-Caldwell, sits on the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee and said in an email Friday that Parma funding will be "a wait and see." He said the committee needs to see where the state is financially in next session and what the economic outlook is for the next fiscal year.
THE FRUITS OF THE CENTER'S LABOR
In 2009, during the financial crisis, Parrella said there were some serious cuts made to the University of Idaho budget and state budget, and it was proposed to close the Parma center.
“When that was proposed, it was met with resistance from farmers,” Parrella said. “There were fierce opponents of the closure and the governor at the time resorted some funding to the center.”
Though, Parrella said the center is still just “a shadow of what it once was.”
The proposed upgrade includes a new facility, called the Parma Center for Plant and Soil Heath, that will include upgraded laboratories, which are currently based in two double-wide trailers. The plan is to keep the three existing buildings for classrooms and student housing, but to expand and modify them.
Parrella said he envisions adding a hops quality assessment lab for the hop growers in the industry, something for the seed industry and a diagnostics lab for insects, weeds, nematodes and diseases.
Parrella plans to start adding faculty positions to the center that include a pomology (fruit) and viticulture (garpevines) position, a plant pathologist, an entomologist, a pollination position that works with native bees, a soil and irrigation specialist and a weed scientist.
The center has six faculty members, 12 staff members, two post-doctoral associates and three graduate students.
Amalgamated Sugar, the second-largest sugar beet producer in the U.S. that has plants in Nampa, Twin Falls and Paul, pledged earlier this month to give $500,000 to the project.
"Amalgamated Sugar recognizes the importance of the research that takes place at the Parma Research and Extension Center and the role it plays in the future of the sugar beet industry," said Jessica Anderson, a spokesperson for Amalgamated Sugar. "However, we are not just supporting the project for the sake of our industry. Amalgamated Sugar is a grower-owned company, and we are participating for the sake of our growers’ interests. Agriculture is a science that relies on research to evolve and improve. Our company’s investment into the Parma facility is an investment in the future of agriculture."
Anderson said the proposed upgrades are important for the facility in order for it to attract professional talent and expand its research capabilities.
"Projects that will help with those goals include graduate housing, greenhouse construction, weed control and disease research and laboratory work. We are excited to see what the future holds for this project," Anderson said.
The Idaho Hops Commission pledged to contribute $525,000 over five years toward the project, and the Idaho Bean Commission and Idaho Barley Commission each have agreed to pitch in $25,000 over five years.
Idaho is the second-largest hop growing state in the country. Michelle Gooding, a hops farmer at Gooding Farms near Parma, said the extension center upgrades will help keep Idaho hops growers as leaders in the industry and help the state maintain its position at the forefront of hop growing.
The proposed hops quality assessment lab will allow Parma researchers to determine how well different varieties of hops are doing in the area and how different watering practices and techniques are working in Idaho, Gooding said.
“We have a good group of motivated young farmers here in Idaho, and that definitely helps because they see the future and the potential here and they want that to be successful,” Gooding said. “We are going to be reaching a competitive market partially of because of COVID, but also because things are competitive. Having the research center puts us ahead of the curve.”
Gooding said she is grateful for the proposed upgrades to Parma, especially following previous discussions to close the center.
Schoepflin said the Idaho State Board of Education recently approved the University of Idaho's request to proceed with the planning and design for the project. She said the college will put together a steering committee to take part in the design process.
The goal, Schoepflin said, is to complete the project by 2023.
The J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation pledged $1 million to the project, the Idaho Onion Growers Association has committed $100,000, and the Idaho Alfalfa and Clover Seed Commission has committed $25,000.
Crookham Seed Co. and Story Family Farms are also helping financially, according to the Idaho Farm Bureau.
"We think it is a transformational thing," Parrella said. "When we did the envisioning sessions, we talked about the fact that 12 years ago we were going to close the station, this is a 180-degree turn."