A Conversation about the “Why” of Our Agricultural Centers for Arizona Agriculture

By Julie Murphree, Arizona Farm Bureau: What we do here with arid-land research, if we do it right, could serve as a model for the rest of the globe and for world stability.

The following article originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of Arizona agriculture. We make it available to a broader audience here to discover the value and importance of agriculture research and development in the university system. 

Each time I drive to the Maricopa Agricultural Center (MAC) on the former Fred Enke place, a flood of memories come racing back, including remembering when dad was the center’s first hire as farm manager back in 1983. I recenly sat down with dad (Pat Murphree), Shane Burgess, vice president and dean of the University of Arizona’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and Rick Ward, MAC’s new director.

Our discussion centered around agricultural research that’s valuable to Arizona’s agriculture, but transferrable and translatable to the globe, certainly in arid conditions like our desert state.

U of A's Maricopa Agricultural Center (MAC) Director Rick Ward, seen here with Pat Murphree, hopes to maximize the number of partnerships for MAC. Note the bronze bust to the right of the photo: Bart Cardon, formerly dean of the UA College of Agriculture was largely responsible for the development of the UA Maricopa Agricultural Center, which earlier had earned international acclaim as a ?Agricultural ?research and demonstration facility. While farm manager for Big MAC, Pat Murphree also ran his own farm just south of the university farm. At times, he had as many as 5,000 productive acres unders his management at one time. 

Dad presented us with some history of MAC’s beginning highlighting what professors and others regularly said: “It’s often been referred to as a jewel in the desert.”

“The center came into existence in an era when biotech in agriculture began emerging and other technologies in farming were taking hold,” said Murphree.  “For the demonstration farm, we grew cotton, alfalfa, wheat and barley. We would try a few new crops on the demonstration farm too. But the emphasis of the Demo farm was to demonstrate a profitable, working farm. All together there were 2,100 acres, 450 of those acres were for research.”

Dad remembers when the international community came to MAC. They came to see the research; and they came to also see the demonstration farm. And in the early years, “If the research side wanted to grow on demo acreage, they had to meet the farm’s average yields.”

While our meeting’s agenda was meant to learn about the Center’s future from the Dean and Rick Ward, they asked dad for an understanding of its past, certainly recognizing that history serves as a foundation for the future. And history can set aspirations to scale to greater goals. If so, that moment may be now.

“We’d like to recapture this being considered the place in the world where we should be doing arid-land research because while there are other places that have the kind of environment or climate pressures we have,” says Dean Burgess, “they don’t have our political stability and/or resources. We now have a world expert in tackling large-scale problems in Rick Ward running MAC.”

So, who is Rick Ward? With a Ph.D. in agronomy, Rick Ward worked as an international maize breeder between 1981 and 1988 with CIMMYT and Pioneer Overseas Corporation. He was CIMMYT's first staff to be posted to Zimbabwe where he built the Mid-Altitude Maize Research Station and started breeding there in 1985 to 1988. During that time he helped Malawi's agricultural research system transition to semi-dent maize hybrids.

From 1989 until 2006 he held a tenure track faculty position at Michigan State University where he was the wheat breeder in the department of Crop and Soil Sciences. He had a 75% research and a 25% teaching appointment but also did outreach/extension.

While at MSU, he taught Plant Genetics, Plant Breeding, and Quantitative Genetics. He also helped design and manage the “Wheat 2000” project that led to widespread increase in the productivity of wheat in Michigan through better crop management. Later, he co-founded and then managed for eight years the U.S. Wheat and Barley Scab Initiative. He released several wheat varieties, five of which are still grown in Canada and the United States.

Ward also helped launch the Global Rust Initiative. He left MSU to return to CIMMYT-Mexico in 2006 to help develop the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation-funded, Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat DRRW project. Ward worked for Cornell during the launch phase of the DRRW and then returned to CIMMYT in 2010 to work first in Afghanistan and then Pakistan, where he helped design and manage the Pakistan Wheat Productivity Enhancement Program funded by USDA. Ward co-developed the new Agricultural Innovation Program for Pakistan that is also funded by USAID.

As the Director of the Maricopa Ag Center at the University of Arizona, he holds one of two Bud Antle Endowed Chairs in the CALS’ School of Plant Sciences. In this context, Arizona Agriculture visited about the future of Arizona agriculture, our agricultural research centers and MAC.

Arizona Agriculture: What can we expect from U of A’s agricultural centers; specifically Big MAC?

Burgess: Our vision is that we take Big MAC and it becomes one of the globally recognized research centers for arid agriculture, just like it has been in the past. But that’s just the big picture. Actually, we’re restarting with “why” this center is important. These research centers are about today’s problems.

Ward: As an organizer, I like to focus on bringing stakeholders together. I like to define the problem, see who needs to be involved, and work toward solutions. I came and looked at this place, and taking into account my global exposure to agriculture, felt like [this center] serves as a nexus of opportunity for key research strategies locally and globally.

And, if one wonders whether these centers are important, consider what’s going on in other parts of the world. If a wheat crop fails in Pakistan where the largest contiguous irrigated agriculture lands -- 36 million acres -- exists you’re going to think the first 10 years of this century were peaceful -- I’ve discussed this with U.S. Ambassadors and U.S. Generals. The Department of Defense quadriannual review of 2014, makes a very clear statement that water and food insecurity are a multiplier effect that will generate more terrorism. 

This is about whether you want your grandchildren in uniform overseas or not. We need 60 percent more calories and protein by 2050 and at the current rate of gain we can’t get there. On top of that, with climate challenges and everyone competing for water and other resources, we have serious work to do for Amerian agriculture and for global stability.

Regarding MAC and our ag centers in general, the key in all of this is the land here and where it is and the irrigation systems infrastructure, the proximity to Phoenix, the fact that we’re part of a network of Agricultural Centers -- Yuma, Safford, Tucson, V-Bar-V – and if you went broader, the imperial valley and elsewhere in the southwest and even further Mexicali and Cd. Obregon, collectively we represent a diverse array of agriculturally relevant land-based ag centers that are hubs of innovation and knowledge dissemination.

In the last few weeks I’ve found out even more of how important water is. Of course, I know how important water is from my own experiences. But I did not realize the competition for water among the Colorado River Basin states was so critical. Arizona and the Colorado river basin is an analogue or microcosm that reflects what as much as one third of the world’s population – those living in arid lands – is or will be facing. In other words, the political, policy and biophysical challenges of urban planners, ag planners and others is happening right here. We become a model of what should or should not be done to ensure a continuing flow of this critical resource, water.

South, East and Southeast Asia is the region of the world that is the mother of all recharges. For example, my take on why China wants Tibet is because it’s the water tower for half the human beings on the planet. The mountainous headwaters of the Yellow, Mekong, Brahmapatru, Indus, Ganges and and Yangtze rivers all rise in Tibet. An incredible number of people live on those river flows. The potential for water wars in the future is real.

But what I’m excited by is these seven western states and the federal government actually have done a pretty good job of working out managing this water since the 1920s. As I learn more about Arizona I discover there’s been serious and successful effort put into water management, and this is not as evident in other regions of the world. Yet the current crisis in California, and other challenges Arizona faces with lowering levels of Lake Mead, all point to a redoubling of efforts to ensure we are making the most or our water resources.

Murphree: Years ago when my dad worked for Doc Chandler, while digging post holes for him around 1918 or 1920 he was hitting water. The water table was so high just digging post holes meant they were reaching water. Obviously, water has always had to be a central focus in farming.

Arizona Agriculture: If seen this way, we are in greater need for these agricultural centers than ever before, right?

Burgess: Well, getting back to what Rick said earlier and the reasons for Rick being here, the lessons he can bring us are fundamentally about keeping Americans out of uniform. This is the first time ever, I think, in the country, but certainly in Arizona, that we’ve had an academic chair-holder as a director of a Hatch Act Experiment Station unit and especially an agricultural center. Never before been done. That’s because I want this center to be the leading ag center of its type in the country where Rick’s kind of job is demonstrating that the future is about thought leadership first and ag center management second. And, the only reason for this place to exist is to make a significant impact for Arizona, for the United States and for the world. We’re going to do it with an Arizona focus. We’re not working for the world, we’re not working for America, we’re working for Arizona.

The final thing I’d like to say is don’t forget that the global middle class is going to double between now and 2030 – including middle-class consumers for Arizona’s products. We’re not an export ag state, we’re an export food state. And, we’ve got our biggest trading partner just south of us.

Arizona Agriculture: And, if we’re talking arid-lands agriculture research, we’re certainly talking about water.

Ward: Yes. I visited the Maricopa-Standfield Irrigation & Drainage District. In my learning curve that visit was a quantum jump. They have those huge maps in their office of 80,000 irrigated acres. I’ve worked in irrigated areas but it wasn’t my focus. My focus has always been the crop. Not the whole picture. When I sat with Brian Betcher and Grant Ward and Jim Hartigan it really clicked that this is an incredibly cooperative and complex [water management] system. Brian Betcher said, “I think that we have one of the most efficient irrigation districts in the world. Though I can’t really prove that.”

That led us to a discussion of whose measuring such things and how do you measure it. Well in the unit of study it’s an irrigation district. Factoring in the number of irrigation districts in Arizona, each one different including construction and other issues there is great potential for further learning. It got me to thinking that this is a level of granularity to compare and connect into a network for learning, experimentation and partnerships.

Let me be real clear, the world is fed by the private sector. Farmers are the private sector and even in the developing world the vast majority of inputs come from the private sector. The public sector’s role continues to be catalytic and as a convener that brings the innovators together to cause impact. MAC has always been a place where the public and private sector work together. We’ve got private sector entities all doing work here [at the research center].

So, we’re now approaching a crisis with 1,075 [water level] in Lake Mead. There is ever more importance in maximizing water use efficiency and avoiding unintended consequences. One of the unintended consequences is that if CAP [Central Arizona Project] doubles in price, we’re going to be pumping and we’re right back where we were before the 1980s.

We need everyone at the table to resolve these water challenges. The infrasturcture of this place needs to be a public good.

Burgess: What if MAC was run like the rest of this valley had to be run in 2020? We’d be here tomorrow even if the market crashes. That’s the point of funding this place to do research. Our job is to take that security and do things [on the research center] that no one else can afford to do. We should run this place as if 1,075 had already happened; that’s part of what I understand from Rick’s research and management focus. That’s why working with the water districts is so important because they’re central to determining how to manage under 1,075-type shortages.

Arizona Agriculture: What are your plans then for MAC? What’s the “How?”

Ward: Right now we host research and extension field research on 450 acres. That leaves about 1,000 acres in fallow today. I want to see us employing as much of that fallow land in either small (150-square-feet or less per plot) or large (1-5 acre per plot) research. I want to maximize the number of partnerships – public and private, private and public – utilizing MAC’s facilities (including our gin, greenhouses, and labs), and enhance the Arizona university and community college system’s capacity to train and educate the next generation of scientists and ag and food workers. We will be key partners in global research projects funded by national and international organizations that aim to generate the knowledge, outreach, and training needed to adapt to and mitigate climate change and peak population. Under the leadership of Dean Burgess, CALS and MAC should be a bridge between mainstream agricultural interests and the municipal and industrial users of water and other shared natural resources in Arizona. Of course we already provide great service to Arizona through our star faculty doing research and Extension in IPM, water quality, urban entomology, precision ag, soil and water management, and ag-literacy. Over 1,500 Arizonan’s have visited or had meetings at MAC since I started January 2.

I have traveled the world in support of the application of science to the problems and opportunities in agriculture for over 33 years, and I know that MAC has a terrifically valuable role to play in the planet’s future. Just by working on our own issues locally, we generate knowledge and capacity that will contribute to that higher goal. I am convinced that the spillover benefits to U.S. National security will enable us to attract funding from the federal government that in turns multiplies the investment impacts of local funding.

One last vital point. MAC is host to the USDA-ARS Aird Lands Agricultural Center that houses 22 excellent scientists dedicated to the same problems we discussed above. Both USDA and UA want to dramatically expand our collaborations with each other in support of the local, regional, national and global issues we’ve discussed. This is a very exciting component of MAC’s present and future contributions.

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