Paul Brierly

Paul Brierly, seen here, heads up the Yuma Center for Excellence in Desert Agriculture, which has been facing tough problems for growers in the Yuma area since its inception more than 4 years ago.

For more than four years, the Yuma Center for Excellence in Desert Agriculture has been doing something radically practical — responding directly to the needs of the farming industry.

Since their humble beginnings in 2013 when the idea for the center was still yet to hatch into something tangible, they’ve grown into a hub for innovation that helps growers meet some of the most daunting challenges of the day.

Funded by the agriculture industry, the center acts as a sort of conduit to the research world, communicating what their needs are and organizing around them.

“Our task is to pull together resources, researchers, you know, put together projects that address these issues and try to get results that are useful to them,” said Paul Brierly, the executive director for the center. “We’re trying to be a bridge, you know, campus is three and a half hours away and maybe not fully tuned into what’s going on in a place like this, and we’re trying to be a bridge to show them the opportunities for research here.”

Brierly, who was there at the birth of the organization, is now one of a staff of five, which includes their newest hire of Associate Director of Applied Research and Development Stephanie Slinski, who has been working on, among other things, a way to fight fusarium wilt of lettuce.

“It’s probably the most important disease right now for lettuce growers,” Slinski said. “It’s a soil inhabiting fungus that is rapidly spreading throughout Yuma Valley and there’s a pretty significant impact on production right now.”

She said that there’s been continuous research since around 2015, with the disease first showing up around 2001.

“But it’s time to ramp it up, because it’s having a serious impact now for the past few years,” she said.

Fusarian wilt of lettuce is a unique challenge, too. Brierly said that while it isn’t the biggest challenge that they face, this is a top priority for growers due to the fact that many other methods of fighting it don’t work.

“Most problems that they face here, disease or pests or mildews, there’s usually some treatment for it, some crop protection product or some cultural method they can employ,” said Brierly. “This is one that there just isn’t an answer to right now, and that’s why it scares them.”

Slinski said, though, that it could grow to become a far greater problem.

“It’s spreading, and it’s spreading pretty rapidly, it gets worse and worse every year,” she said.

It’s not all doom and gloom over at YCEDA, though. They’re also currently working with Barilla, the pasta company headquartered in Italy, which is funding studies on sustainability and water management.

“They’re really big into sustainability,” said Brierly. “So they’re funding research on nitrogen management and water footprint of irrigation.”

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