Limestone rocks strategically-placed in an agricultural research field at the Desert Research and Extension Center (DREC) in El Centro spell out a milestone for Imperial Valley farmers and the University of California.

The rocks spell “UC DREC 1912-2012,” a befitting acknowledgment to a century’s worth of agricultural research designed to meet the needs of farmers and ranchers in the Imperial Valley low desert.

About 300 agricultural enthusiasts joined hands at the DREC in late October to celebrate 100 years of accomplishments through research at the center.

The wingding party featured farm tours of current agricultural research projects, a toe-tapping mariachi band, fancy edibles, and festive fellowship marking a century of the UC’s commitment to low desert agriculture and public outreach.

(For more, see: Photo collage - 100th anniversary of the Desert Research and Extension Center, El Centro, Calif.)

“Moving into the next century a commitment remains to serve the public as a dedicated steward of the land in an attempt to ensure that local agricultural needs are recognized, research projects initiated, completed, documented, and disseminated,” says Alan Robertson.

Robertson is the DREC historian and author of a 105-page compilation on the DREC’s achievements. The booklet includes historical narrative, photos, center accomplishments, and the names of the 100-plus employees who have served to better the agricultural industry. Robertson’s wife, Nancy Caywood-Robertson, is the center’s educational outreach coordinator in charge of the center’s Farm Smart program.

DREC is the oldest continuously operating research farm in the UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources’ nine farm research center system. 

DREC is located in southeastern-most California adjacent to San Diego County to the west, Arizona to the east, and Mexico to the south.

To appreciate the DREC, it is important to understand the history of this arid low desert region as spelled out by Robertson.

At the turn of the 20th century, the Imperial Valley was a tough place to live for its 13,500 residents. Furnace-like summer temperature extremes above 110 degrees made living difficult. Air conditioning was merely a dream; far from reality.

Efforts to establish the research center were initiated in 1908 — current DREC director Khaled Bali said at the Oct. 25 event.

In 1909, valley residents asked the University of California to commission a study to find a suitable location for an experimental farm representing the soils of the Imperial Valley.

In November 1911, the Imperial County Board Supervisors and 16 local growers purchased 20 acres of land from Irving and Fannie Gleason for $1,800 in gold coins.

The research station was born.

“The collaborative effort between the University, Imperial County, and growers was the beginning of a long-lasting relationship to advance agriculture in the Imperial Valley,” Bali told the crowd.

Tremendous strides in ag research

Around 1910, the Imperial Valley had about 1,300 farms, according to records from the California State Agricultural Society. Butter production was among the top agricultural products valued at about $958,000 annually. Cotton farmers sold their fiber for about $685,000 annually. Agriculture’s value during the period from 1907-1909 totaled about $2 million annually.

A time capsule ride to 2011 reveals the impact of air conditioning, the DREC’s agricultural research gains, and other factors over the years in valley farming. Last year, valley agriculture generated an economic value of about $2 billion.

In short, farm income increased from $2 million with an “M” to $2 billion with a “B” in a century.

Receipts for vegetables and melons grown on 110,000 acres last year totaled about $900 million. Field crops on 365,000 acres added about $518,000 million to agriculture’s economic value.

From 1908 to 1911, Meloland was the name of an unincorporated community in the Holtville area adjacent to El Centro at an elevation about 60 feet below sea level. Meloland was the name of the very fine sandy loam soil in the area.

The name of the desert research facility has changed over the years — from the Imperial Valley Experiment Farm (1912-1948) to the Imperial Valley Field Station (1948-1984). The Imperial Valley Agricultural Center was the moniker from 1984 to 1990. The UC Desert Research and Extension Center is the current title.

Field day events have allowed researchers and others to share DREC advancements with local farmers, ranchers, and the public. According to Robertson, a 1964 field day focused on achievements in alfalfa production and utilization. That year, farmers grew about 150,000 acres of alfalfa with average yields of 5.9 tons per acre.

Last year, Imperial County alfalfa production (baled) covered 118,000 acres with a 7.29 ton per acre yield, and a gross value of $190 million.

Among the tremendous strides in agricultural research achieved at the DREC include the development of new plant varieties. These include an alfalfa variety resistant to the blue alfalfa aphid, the new Calmar lettuce variety which resists downy mildew, the barley variety Signal with high yields in low-desert production, and CUF 101 alfalfa which produces year round in the desert environment with resistance to multiple pests.

Trials began this year on improved heat tolerance traits in lettuce and spinach.

Twenty leaders have led DREC over its century existence — from the first director Walter E. Packard to today’s interim director Khaled Bali. L.G. Goar served three stints as director for a total of six years.

Today, the Center includes 255 acres of land and more than 20 full- and part-time employees.

Employees continue to focus on winter vegetable crop breeding and culture. The winter vegetable production areas in the Imperial Valley and neighboring Yuma County, Ariz., are touted as the “Winter Vegetable Capital of the World.” About 90 percent of the U.S. supply of winter vegetables is grown in this low-desert region.

DREC also is heavily focused on emerging bio-energy crops. The area is a major germplasm test site for crops due to the mild winter climate.

On the irrigation front, Bali works closely to develop optimal strategies in desert agriculture. Irrigated agriculture covers about 530,000 acres in the valley. Water for agriculture is supplied by the Colorado River.

Border- and furrow-based irrigation systems inherently create runoff and deep percolation losses. Researchers, including Bali, are developing innovative automated irrigation technology including timing control gates, flumes, and sensors to increase irrigation efficiency.

Climate change is expected to increase future temperatures in the valley, a major threat to local lettuce and spinach production. DREC researchers are exploring new heat- and drought-tolerant varieties which consume less water and better tolerate temperature extremes.

DREC staff is also heavily involved in the development of new melon varieties which can better tolerate the serious melon diseases cucurbit powdery mildew and cucurbit yellow stunting disorder virus.

California is the nation’s top melon-producing state. About one-third of the crop is grown in the low desert. 

As with other agricultural research centers, funding is a major challenge for DREC. The center’s annual operating budget this year is $812,000.

To help offset financial restrictions, Bali says DREC projects rely heavily on donations from the agricultural industry, plus grants from the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Reclamation, the California Department of Water Resources, UC’s division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, and other funding sources.

Western Farm Press thanks Alan Robertson for his contributions to this article.

Robertson’s booklet is available online at http://ucanr.edu/sites/desertresearch/files/156620.pdf.

cblake@farmpress.com