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Like most land grant universities across the country, the University of Idaho’s agricultural research facilities are showing their age. And despite the critical work performed at those facilities, funding for upgrades has been limited.
The Idaho Agricultural Experiment Station in the university’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences has supported the state’s agribusiness industry and the broader economy for 125 years, but its nine research and extension centers are about 50 years old.
“We’re dealing with an aging infrastructure” and equipment that is older than the new researchers the university hopes to bring on board, said Mark McGuire, IAES director.
“We need to step up. We need to make some changes,” he said.
That need prompted an outside analysis of the economic impact of the research centers to demonstrate return on investment.
“We’re trying to show the state’s investment in the research and extension centers has a very good return,” he said.
The analysis — performed by Emsi, an economic analysis company based in Moscow, Idaho — weighed the economic impact of three of the largest research centers, those at Kimberly, Aberdeen and Parma.
It found their $8.1 billion in research funding in FY 2016-17 created $11.5 million in economic activity. That’s a 141 percent return on research funding — or a return of $1.41 for every $1 spent by the research facilities.
Those three centers also generated $3.8 million in new grant funding and created $5.1 million in additional income and an additional 137 jobs across the state.
The analysis also estimated the direct impact of intellectual property from the research — ranging from plant breeding to irrigation efficiency — and found it would generate $11 million in additional income and $37.6 million in additional sales if farmers fully implemented those varieties or practices.
In 2011 alone, university researchers’ early detection and warning of potential stripe rust damage to wheat crops generated a one-time economic impact of $178.5 million in income and $230 million in sales for Idaho’s wheat industry and the state’s economy, Emsi reported.
The research not only benefits agricultural producers but all of Idaho, providing additional jobs, tax revenue and sales. It also provides environmental benefits through improved agricultural management practices that reduce water and chemical usage, McGuire said.
But the research facilities and equipment are so old that people served by IAES wonder how researchers can find solutions for the challenges they bring, he said.
Significant funding is needed for repairs and maintenance and to replace laboratories, some of which are well over 50 years old. Total cost would be at least $150 million, and the university is working on a plan to secure $50 million to $60 million over the next five to 10 years, he said.
That plan involves allocating IAES dollars, support from the Legislature and funding from commodity groups.
Agriculture is a huge part of Idaho’s economy, and the university needs to be able to respond to research needs to keep it healthy and viable, he said.