More than 2,300 miles of ‘windshield time’ greeted Shane Burgess during his first two weeks as the University of Arizona’s (UA) new dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS).

Burgess’ extensive drives across Arizona have included face-to-face meetings with leaders in St. Johns, Flagstaff, Phoenix, Yuma, and other areas to learn about the needs of the people and industries served by the university’s CALS program. “I have met a diverse group of people,” Burgess said. “In Maricopa County (greater Phoenix area), a major agricultural issue is water – the costs, availability, and agriculture’s water priority in the region.”

Western Farm Press joined Dean Burgess during an early September tour of agriculture and water systems in Yuma County. The tour was led by Tim Dunn, president of Dunn Grain in Yuma and Arizona Farm Bureau first vice-president; Marvin Marlatt of Marlatt Brothers farm in Wellton; and Jennifer McCloskey of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Yuma.

Stops included the Wellton-Mohawk area, cotton harvest in the Dome Valley including a Case IH Module Express 625 picker in action, the Imperial Diversion Dam on the Arizona-California border, and the Yuma Desalting Plant.

Burgess succeeds Gene Sander who recently retired as the UA CALS Dean after 22 years of service. Sander currently serves as the UA interim president.

Sander said, “Shane is an outstanding administrator and scientist who will give us real leadership in one of the more important areas impacting the agricultural sciences.” 

The six major multidisciplinary areas covered by the CALS program include: environment, water, land, energy, and natural resources; plant, insect, and microbe systems; animal systems; children, youth, families, and communities; consumers, marketplace, trade, and economics; and human nutrition, health, and food safety.

Burgess, a New Zealand native, has an impressive resume with service around the world as a practicing veterinarian and scientist.

Burgess joined the UA after a 10-year assignment with the Mississippi State University (MSU) College of Veterinary Medicine. In 2009, Burgess received MSU’s highest research award, the Ralph E. Powe Research Excellent Award.

Burgess’ voice is full New Zealand brogue; surprisingly lacking a twang of Southern drawl.

On Aug. 15, Burgess became the CALS dean; hitting the ground running to quickly learn about arid land irrigated agriculture, ranching, and other issues. He asks inquisitive questions to those who provide input; always looking at the larger perspective, yet his scientist background inquires specifically about how things work.

At the Yuma Desalting Plant (YDP), Burgess examined a small-scale replica of a water desalting tube and quizzed YDP engineer Charles Moody on how the tube’s internal layers work harmoniously to remove salt from water.

The YDP was designed to treat saline agricultural return flows from the Wellton-Mohawk Irrigation and Drainage District in eastern Yuma County. Since the YDP was completed in 1992, the facility has remained mostly closed.

Treated water is intended for water deliveries to Mexico to preserve water from the Colorado River stored in Lake Mead. The plant has been structurally maintained, but operated only for occasional testing. If future drought forces drastic water decisions on the Colorado River, the YPD could be brought into full operation. McCloskey says that could take about three years.

Fiscal reality

Burgess’ most immediate administrative challenge is to fill three critical CALS associate dean positions in the areas of academic programs, Cooperative Extension, and the Agricultural Research Station. Sander’s retirement coincided with the retirements of associate deans Colin Kaltenbach, Jim Christenson, and David Cox.

The so-called ‘gang of four’ retired with a combined 95 years of UA service.

“It’s challenging but we are pushing very hard (on the new hirings),” Burgess said. “We are moving very quickly to fill those positions.”

Burgess move to Arizona’s land-grant university system comes amid tough fiscal realities in the Grand Canyon State. State of Arizona budget cuts have sliced budgets at the UA and other state colleges and universities. His goal is to work smart for UA CALS stakeholders with available funds.

“We need to be very fiscally responsible, very lean, very adaptable, and look at revenue generation,” Burgess said. “We also need to look at where the state of Arizona needs the University of Arizona to be in the next 10 years.”

On academics, Burgess is committed to preparing CALS students for the real world.

“We have to make sure we meet our academic mission,” Burgess said. “This is not only about giving students technical skills. We need to make sure our students go out into the world and compete to be successful.”

Burgess’ vision for Arizona production agriculture is to maintain the university’s role as a trusted source of information – ranging from developing new technology and testing existing technology including chemicals, new crops, and irrigation systems.

“We need to be the trusted source that our individual producers can go to,” Burgess said.

Arizona agriculture is a $10-plus billion industry producing a smorgasbord of food and fiber for consumers domestically and worldwide. Agriculture is a sturdy backbone for Arizona despite the Great Recession. Arizona was among the fastest-growing states in the nation when the nation’s economic tailspin headed south.

“Agriculture has provided a buffer and a foundation for Arizona,” Burgess declared. “Agriculture has kept the state afloat.”

Through his visits with community leaders, Burgess understands that agriculture, water, and electricity for pumping water go hand-in-hand.
“The link between water and electricity is very clear to me because we do so much pumping and move a lot of water around. It’s difficult to distinguish the two especially when water is producing electricity at the same time.”

On food safety, Burgess says U.S. farmers and ranchers produce the cheapest and safest food in the world. The agricultural industry has a good handle on food safety.

“We have some issues that we have to keep an eye on in large-scale animal production to make sure we don’t have food contamination. This can be handled and is doable.”