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