Public-private partnerships in food systems: How it’s done at the Yuma Center of Excellence for Desert Agriculture

By: Janell Bohreer, ASU Sustainable Food Systems graduate student.

Note: Paul Brierley has now transitioned into a new position as Director of the Arizona Department of Agriculture.

The close of fall semester is busy with final exams and papers along with holiday travel plans for most students at Arizona State University. For sustainable food systems graduate students, the end of the semester kicks off Professor Merrigan’s favorite course: the Food and Farm Immersion. Students enrolled in the program have the singular opportunity to visit and speak with people at the forefront of Arizona’s food systems operations. This year’s immersive provided firsthand, comprehensive introductions to many aspects of our state’s food systems, from touring ranches, farms, and community gardens to inspecting produce with an agent at USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service office. As future leaders, this immersion course allowed us to listen to various perspectives from many diverse stakeholders, laying the foundation for effective policymaking.

My cohort had the privilege of visiting the University of Arizona's Yuma Center of Excellence for Desert Agriculture (YCEDA) where the Executive Director, Paul Brierley, kindly gave a presentation on the organization. Mr. Brierley’s education and career background, as well as his advocacy and leadership in the community and agriculture, make him uniquely suited for the position he was chosen to serve since YCEDA’s inauguration in 2014. After obtaining his degree in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, he worked as a Senior Engineer in telecommunications at Pacific Bell’s communication research laboratory. Returning to his rural roots, Safford in Southeast Arizona where he began as owner and operator of Brierley Custom Hay before joining the Arizona Farm Bureau Federation as Director of Organization. Mr. Brierley held this position until he was asked to take on the role of YCEDA’s Executive Director.

The Yuma Center of Excellence for Desert Agriculture represents a coalition of public and private stakeholders in desert agriculture. While the Center is a University of Arizona entity, it is not to be confused with the university’s cooperative extension program or the Yuma Agricultural Center. The 2015 YCEDA Annual Report describes their mission to “provide rapid, direct value-adding responses to issues important for desert crop production systems.” Rather than duplicating the work of other entities such as the extension program, YCEDA complements them with work on “crop protection, sustainability through production efficiencies and yield maximization, technology utilization, water, labor, food safety, desert agriculture stresses and economic and environmental challenges.”

Brierley’s thorough presentation offered an overview of Yuma’s distinct contribution to Arizona agriculture. The county's geographic position, climate, and fertile soil are ideal for growing leafy greens, earning it the moniker “America’s Winter Salad Bowl”. He has also reviewed several of YCEDA’s projects related to plant health and water management. In collaboration with industry partners, academic institutions, and researchers, the Center aims to use precision technology to monitor, evaluate, and respond to plant disease and water needs. YCEDA is working to utilize satellite imaging to monitor fields in order to develop tools to collect and analyze data such as irrigation water and soil salinity management. Additionally, spatial and spectral imaging can be used to identify plant stress, soil deterioration, or disease which allows for immediate and targeted response. The potential for this type of precision technology to isolate disease such as fusarium wilt of lettuce as a means of mitigating supply chain disruption and producer profits is especially promising. YCEDA’s wastewater-based epidemiology lab and testing work illustrates the organization’s ability to respond to the needs of the community. As the incidence of COVID-19 spiked throughout the nation, the Center was able to utilize novel technology for detecting plant disease to identify new cases and their origin. The project was instrumental in preventing the spread of the virus and limiting lettuce crop loss due to a shortage of workers.

Public-private partnerships such as YCEDA are a cornerstone of a new education paradigm as described in Designing the New American University and The Fifth Wave by Michael Crow and William Dabars. As a collaborative effort among desert agriculture industry, researchers, government, and academic institutions, the Yuma Center of Excellence for Desert Agriculture has demonstrated the model’s effectiveness. Arizona State University’s Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems regularly partners with non-profit organizations, academic institutions, think tanks, and government agencies to research challenges, examine the efficacy of initiatives, and determine feasibility of solutions within our food systems. This cohort’s visit with Paul Brierley at YCEDA gave students valuable insight into the success of this model from an institution other than ASU.

This blog is part of a series from the December 2022 Arizona immersive component of the MS in Sustainable Food Systems Program. Students toured the state, meeting with farmers, ranchers, entrepreneurs, government staff, and non-profit leaders.