In a world of shrinking Extension budgets and the need to move quickly on programs to aid commercial farmers, a public/private partnership was borne five years ago to address the unique needs of produce growers in the Yuma, Ariz. region.
Through the collaboration and research available with the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension, and donations by local produce growers, the Yuma Center of Excellence for Desert Agriculture came about to meet the fast-moving needs of Yuma area farmers. With its formation, YCEDA hired Paul Brierley to oversee the program and attract donors willing to fund research projects.
Brierley credits Dr. Shane Burgess, a veterinarian and vice president for agriculture, life, and veterinary sciences with the University of Arizona with the idea.
"He toured the state then to learn about Arizona agriculture and he very quickly saw that Yuma was this incredible powerhouse with ag production," Brierley said.
That snowballed into discussions with produce industry leaders like Robert Barkley, Victor Smith, and others to create the public/private partnership. Barkley currently serves as chairman of YCEDA with Victor Smith, Mike Antle, John D'Arrigo, Kelly Keithly, Stephen Martori, Mark Smith, and Burgess as the ex-officio member.
Brierley said Burgess was keenly interested in helping figure out how to fund industry research at an appropriate level in the face of ongoing budget cuts at the state and federal levels. Donors sought actionable results that could quickly be seen, Brierley said.
Researchers recently embarked on work to understand fusarium wilt in lettuce, a disease that can decimate early-fall lettuce because of the high soil temperatures when lettuce is planted in September. That work continues under the direction of Stephanie Slinski, a plant pathologist and the associate director for applied research and development with YCEDA.
Keeping agricultural workers safe in a pandemic quickly became a focus among farm owners in 2020. This led to studies that morphed into projects with widespread public health implications, Brierley said.
Last summer a donor came to Brierley with a vague idea to help farmers bring their employees back to work safely in the COVID era. The idea started with a goal to provide better information for Yuma County public health and the State of Arizona. Through some brainstorming with Burgess, it was learned that when humans are first infected with COVID, they shed signs of the infection in their waste well before physical symptoms are discovered. This led to wastewater testing in Tucson to test this early-warning system.
The trick was to take the testing of large public wastewater systems where it would be difficult to determine who was sick, down to small enough samples where medical testing could then be employed to narrow the results. This led to the testing of wastewater from farmworker outhouses, but also included larger projects, such as the dorms at the University of Arizona.
"Our thought was if we could test the outhouses at the end of the day, we could alert farm labor crews that someone is sick," Brierley said. "So I began to talk to the farm labor contractors and told them 'I've got this crazy idea that you can talk me out of, but it seems to have merit'."
The initial challenge was how to quickly test samples through Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) testing. The PCR test amplifies DNA in each sample, allowing researchers to discover disease. Sending samples to Tucson for testing would be cumbersome, costly and time consuming. This led to the discovery of unused lab space at the Yuma Extension Center complete with PCR equipment and a researcher capable of correctly using the equipment. Immediately Brierley said officials were able to get test results back within a day, versus several days as would be the case with the Tucson lab.
That system was up and running by Nov. 1 with notable results.
An agricultural processor in the region agreed to have its wastewater tested before Thanksgiving. Those results were negative. After the Thanksgiving holiday they saw their first positive in the wastewater stream.
"By then we had everything in place," Brierley said. Through relationships built with the public health community and the Regional Center for Border Health, a mobile COVID testing unit was immediately set up to test the employees.
"Our tests are just environmental, so we needed to do clinical testing to narrow it down to individual employees," he said.
Of the employees tested, four returned positive for COVID. A fifth employee who was married to one of the other four was also asked to quarantine. All five were continued to be paid throughout their quarantine, he said. Follow-up tests of the five, plus other employees indicated that this prevented further spread of the disease.
A similar incident happened at the University of Arizona dorms as that college broke tradition with schools in other states to begin in-person learning on campus. Wastewater testing at the dorms two weeks into the semester revealed a positive sample. As a result about 300 students were tested. Two of them tested positive in clinical tests and were moved to an isolation dorm to prevent spread to other students.
Pairing with Extension
The Yuma center Brierley runs is not intended to supplant the work of Extension researchers or farm advisors. They work in tandem, but because the YCEDA tends to be nimbler in how it can fund projects, work there can sometimes begin much quicker. Brierley is working to shorten that time even more through in-house grant funding.
"I see us as complimentary of each other," Brierley said of the relationship between YCEDA and Cooperative Extension.
Collaborative efforts are also under way with Western Growers, the Irvine, Calif.-based organization that built a start-up incubator in Salinas, Calif. a few years ago. Those efforts include moving as fast as possible on food safety. Brierley is also working with the Center for Produce Safety in Woodland, Calif. on similar things.
Brierley said YCEDA is also funding water quality work by Channah Rock an associate water quality specialist and professor with Arizona Cooperative Extension through the Maricopa Agricultural Center.