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Idaho research center set to shake up dairy industry

Combine more than $20 million, hundreds of acres of farmland in the middle of nowhere Idaho and a state always willing to come together over dairying and what do you end up with? The promise of innovation and making dairy farms environmentally sound.

(CN) — An unremarkable conference room at the Idaho statehouse — one used to host land board meetings that typically drum up as much enthusiasm as one would expect from such administrative gatherings — hosted something unusual for the space this autumn: a cheering crowd.

What turned this often dry setting into a place of pure celebration? Not the passage of landmark legislation or news that some partisan agenda had found new footing, but the hard-fought approval to build what is set to be the largest experimental farm of its kind in the entire nation.

Meet CAFE — the Center for Agriculture, Food and the Environment — a dairy facility being developed on 640 acres of farmland in south-central Idaho near the town of Rupert in the heart of the state’s dairy industry. Once developed and operational, CAFE will pursue a goal crucial to both Idaho and the world at large: to research and solve the biggest challenges facing the dairy sector.

CAFE is being developed by the University of Idaho, which was recently given the thumbs up to use $23 million to buy the farmland.

The dream of greenlighting a project of this size and scope was not easily fulfilled. There have been at least four attempts to get CAFE off the ground, including one where the university was offered $10 million in state funding to get things underway. But that offer came in 2009, in the midst of a crippling economic recession and, unable to get all dominos lined up in time, the university couldn't pull the trigger.  

But bigger buy-ins and engagement, including from university administrators, support from the dairy community and changes to federal law that freed up endowment money to be used on brick-and-mortar projects allowed the most recent attempt to succeed. 

Mark McGuire, associate dean at the university’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, said as CAFE is developed, it’s important to reflect on why it’s being created in the first place.

“We have to justify what we’re doing, to address the concerns of the industry and the needs of the industry, and one of those is sustainability of agriculture in total,” McGuire said. “For the dairy industry, they have a goal of having a net zero impact of greenhouse gases by 2050 and they need a facility like this dairy in Rupert to answer those questions.”

The project has environmental hurdles that threaten its long-term goals. The scores of animals will add to greenhouse gas emissions and operating a dairy with sometimes thousands of cows can leave the land and water polluted.

It’s here where CAFE is getting ready to be put to work. Researchers want to use the facility to explore exactly how dairying harms the underlying soil and what strategies could be used to mitigate that harm.

“We’re taking soil tests down to bedrock at approximately every 0.4 acres on these plots so we’re able to really understand what the characteristics of the soil are,” McGuire said. “Then, when we get cows on the site, we will apply manure or manure byproducts or extracted nutrients to really look at what the impacts are on the soil characteristics.”

Josh Johnson, senior conservation associate for the Idaho Conservation League, said the project has also found favor with conservationists in Idaho. Operating a dairy of any size, let alone a research facility billed as the largest of its kind in the United States, comes with a huge environmental footprint. But Johnson believes when the grander picture is taken into consideration, CAFE will more than prove its worth.

“This project should be a net benefit, in terms of what we gain in terms of research and new techniques,” Johnson said. “There are a lot of diaries in the Magic Valley, some with 5,000, 10,000, 50,000 cows them. This is a 1,000- to 2,000-cow dairy that’s being operated under very controlled conditions. So I think in the long term, we need a project like this.”

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Johnson also stressed that, unlike the typical Idaho dairy, this one will be closely watched by all manner of industries and interested players.

“There’s also going to be a lot of eyes on this one, compared to your average dairy that’s privately run,” Johnson said. "I think because this is from University of Idaho and because it’s a research project, things are going to be very upfront and transparent. In the unlikely event that there is an unanticipated greater environmental impact we would know about it, but I think that’s pretty unlikely.”

This does not mean the project will be free of all hurdles. Conservationists note Idaho has long prided itself on being one of the least regulated states in the nation, an identity many of its political leaders have spent decades fostering. And in a state like that, change can be slow to accept and slower still to act on. For Johnson, this may prove to be one of the bigger challenges facing the CAFE.

“I think we have some catching up to do, but Idaho has the opportunity to be a leader on some of this through CAFE and really take the bull by the horns on the research end of things,” Johnson said. “But the important part, on the follow-up side, is once we learn and get some of the big takeaways from the CAFE project, be that five years, ten years, 20 years down the road, then we need to actually implement them. And that can be the tricky part.”

Experts also stress the sustainability of the dairy industry is linked to economics. To help address this, CAFE intends tolook at increasing the milk yield of cows at the facility. By increasing how much a cow is capable of safely producing and sharpening the science behind productivity, the hope is to make cows more efficient. And an efficient cow, experts say, is a much greener one.

“Every experiment that potentially increases milk yield, almost invariably reduces the environmental footprint of that cow. For instance, in 1950 there were 20 million dairy cows in the U.S. that fed the 100 million population of the U.S. and right now there’s 9 million dairy cows to feed our 350 million. So if you put in the improvements of milk yield alone, that cow is much more sustainable to the environment," McGuire said.

CAFE is being managed by academics and researchers instead of corporate players, which broadens what it is capable of. Private companies — particularly in agriculture where the margins of error can be unforgiving — must make money in order to exist, making these kinds of long-term projects risky. Idaho Governor Brad Little noted this during the approval process, remarking that if this type of research was more affordable, private industry would have already jumped on it.

The University of Idaho, which can utilize grant money and will likely see more grant opportunities come its way once the facility is up and running, has the means to make more long-term plays and investments for the good of the community — and not just its own interests.

“There’s really very little private R&D in the dairy industry, per se,” McGuire said. “Agriculture doesn’t have the Silicon Valley type of approach, where those companies have significant R&D. Agriculture tends to spend less on R&D, and utilize public land grant universities as their tools through the research developed there to ultimately find the products and the opportunities.”

That’s not to suggest that the dairy industry unwilling or unable to throw their weight — and some cash — behind the project. Dairy industry players in Idaho bought roughly half of the land CAFE will be built on.

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Rick Naerebout, CEO of the Idaho Dairymen’s Association which has been involved with CAFE from the start, said the dairy industry has a vested interest in seeing the project succeed.

“We need to test out some of these new technologies at scale,” Naerebout. “We need to be able to see them and demonstrate them working so that our dairymen can have confidence that if they are going to make significant investments and new technology on their operation that they will have the assurances that it has gone through unbiased, third party research.”

But that's not the only thing keeping dairy giants involved. They know their industry is one that is intimately intertwined with the health of the environment — which they're making a top priority.

“Our focus and our involvement in this has always been on the environmental side,” Naerebout said. “We want to understand the environmental aspects of our industry better. Agricultural is being looked to as one of the main areas where we can sequester carbon. How do we do that effectively and with technologies that our dairymen can afford and we know will be successful? How can we continue to have good results in protecting water quality and air quality? It’s focus areas like that that have our interest.”

University researchers and dairy giants of Idaho hope CAFE will drive a wave of agricultural thinkers to the state's doorstep. Idaho has the third largest dairy industry in the nation, behind California and Wisconsin, and the economic opportunities the industry provides the state is invaluable. Experts want to present CAFE as a new haven for bright, creative minds around the world tackling agriculture’s biggest problems and give them a space where those problems can find remedies.  

The chance for Idaho to be a bigger leader here is not lost on the dairy industry — and it's something they think could give them an edge for the future.

“For our dairymen, the benefit is if you have that critical mass of researchers and innovate thinkers, then it puts us in a position to employ some of the most emerging and successful technologies out there on our operations,” Naerebout said. “And it provides us that opportunity to have all of that happening in our backyard.”

That could be why the often dreary land board meeting room erupted in excitement when the project finally got the stamp of approval. Idaho is dominated by entrenched politics and harsh divisions that often leave ambitious new proposals struggling to find solid ground. But the state's dairy industry and a commitment to the land that make dairying possible helped bring its people together and convince them that groundbreaking projects like CAFE are worthwhile.

“Over the past 15 to 20 years, there has been effort to develop this facility because everybody knew it was needed. The Legislature knew, the dairy industry knew, the university knew, the college knew and we were struggling to figure out how to do it without somebody writing a big check. And I think that celebration was a lot of relief that we went through the process and we figured out ways to make it happen," McGuire said.

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