TWIN FALLS, Idaho — Making a case for the largest research dairy in the country, Michael Parrella, dean of the University of Idaho’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, highlighted the importance of agriculture and milk production during public listening sessions last week.
Idaho agricultural sales are valued at $7.5 billion and represent 6 percent of the state’s gross domestic product. Agriculture’s contribution to Idaho’s GDP is the fourth highest percentage in the nation — even higher than California agriculture’s share of that state’s GDP, he said.
Idaho’s dairy industry has grown dramatically over the last 25 years to vie with New York as the third-largest dairy state in the nation.
It’s “transformed into this colossus in a very short period of time,” Parrella said.
Milk production represents 33 percent of agriculture’s GDP in Idaho. Together with livestock and forage, the combination is upwards of 70 percent. With food processing added in, the total is upward of 80 percent of agriculture’s GDP in Idaho.
Total direct and indirect employment tied to dairy is nearly 51,000 jobs, with at least 40,000 in southern Idaho, he said.
The proposed Idaho Center for Agriculture, Food and the Environment will be the largest research dairy in the U.S. and address animal agriculture and food processing challenges and opportunities.
Its mission will include examining the sociology of dairy industry and community relations, as well as business and economic factors. That approach will improve on existing sustainable practices to support a profitable and environmentally sound dairy and food industry.
While the center will be dairy-centric, it won’t be only about cows. The research will also address water efficiency, discharge, treatment and recycling. It will also address manure handling and nutrient management.
Lawsuits and concerns over water contamination linked to manure aren’t going to go away, and CAFE’s research will help inform rules and regulations guiding nutrient management, he said.
Based on a feasibility study, the original plan for CAFE was to buy land and build the center from scratch. The plan now is to buy and retrofit a dairy.
Reality set in with the challenge of obtaining water rights and animal permits. Community acceptance is another factor, as the university discovered from backlash in one community where it was thought CAFE would be built, he said.
“So we want to go where we’re wanted,” where the community will see the center as beneficial, he said.
The university is now focused on Jerome County and is working closely with Jerome 20/20, an economic development organization.
Three sites, all permitted for more than 3,000 animals, have received first-phase assessments raising no red flags, he said.