The UC Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR) Desert Research and Extension Center (DREC) is in the heart of the Imperial Valley, surrounded by green fields, feedlots, busy farmers and a growing urban community. Jairo Diaz, a Colombian native, is the director of the center, and he proudly talks about its importance.
"This valley is one of the most amazing ag valleys that we have in the (United) States. We are one of the top valleys in agriculture. We have diverse agriculture here, from being the salad bowl of vegetables in the winter along with Yuma, Ariz., to forage all year round for the feedlots," Diaz said.
Diaz is the Hispanic academic with the highest rank in UC ANR, and he oversees all the research and outreach programs conducted there.
Last fiscal year, the center conducted 42 projects in the following areas: plant breeding and variety trials (13), irrigation and fertilizer management (8), forage and agronomic crops (6), vegetable disease management (3), environmental studies (2), food safety (1), weed management (1), livestock (1), and outreach and educational programs (7). Lead academics are from the University of California system (UC ANR, UC Davis, UC Riverside), the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Canada. Research at the center tackles a diversity issues in Imperial County's top 10 agricultural and livestock commodities.
"We have over 40 different projects, including research to improve vegetable production, irrigation practices, management of cattle in the feedlots, nutrition and so on. All that impacts our communities because all this research is connected to the industry and the growers. So, we have a direct connection with our stakeholders daily," Diaz said.
This year has not been easy for DREC; COVID-19 forced them to implement drastic measures to ensure the safety of the staff and the communities they serve.
"We scaled down our field and laboratory research and implemented research plans with researchers and leadership to move forward critical research during this global pandemic time. We also implemented safety plans for on-site staff performing daily infrastructure and maintenance of critical activities," stated Diaz.
Once those safety measures were in place, they have been busier than ever, supporting more than 40 research projects and providing maintenance to more than 70,000 square feet of facilities. During the spring, under the supervision of Gilberto Magallon, the center's superintendent, they harvested to collect research data in small grains, vegetables, sugar beets, melons and corn. At the same time, forage and cattle studies are ongoing. Diaz acknowledges the staff's exceptional work and the investigators who, far from being stopped by the pandemic, manage to conduct their research remotely.
One of the jewels of the center is the Farm Smart outreach and educational program.
"This program is top-rated and successful. It focuses on major issues occurring in our local communities, including access to high-quality education and food, healthy habits and higher education pathways," Diaz said.
Farm Smart, supervised by community education specialists Stacey Amparan and Stephanie Collins, engaged 7,253 participants in community activities and presentations. Before the pandemic outbreak, DREC hosted extension field days, commodity board meetings, and workshops where growers, ranchers, industry and academics could discuss and share knowledge about current research activities at the center and within the California low desert region.
Diaz notes that the Farm Smart programs are tailored to everyone's needs, from toddlers to seniors citizens.
While the center quietly sees another hot summer pass by and waits for things to get back to normal, Diaz and his staff are working on new ways to connect with the communities they serve. Some of the Farm Smart programs offer online classes, and their social media platforms have become the door of contact with their stakeholders.
"We are so thankful for the high level of support we have from our local communities. Early in June, we received donations from two local organizations to support our educational efforts," said Diaz.