Aug 12, 2009
Rebellion in Idaho: Research Station, Slated for Closure, Incites Grower Resistance

At first, it seemed to be the “usual” kind of story. A land grant university, facing the need to cut its operating budget, reluctantly decides to close one of its experiment stations.

The University of Idaho wouldn’t be the first land grant university to cut its foot while hacking away at its agricultural roots. But the turmoil its administrators have kicked up by deciding to close the Experiment Station at Parma, Idaho, could provide a lasting limp, some black eyes and perhaps worse.

What started as a simple press release June 17 from the university’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, in which Dean John Hammel said that it would close the station as part of the solution to its budget problems, quickly became a national story. After three weeks of brouhaha, the state’s governor, C.L. Otter, and the university’s new president, Duane Nellis, announced the decision would be put on hold and that “due process” would be followed before a final decision is made.

What caused the uproar?

In large part, it was the reaction of specialty crops growers in Idaho.

Closing the station would cut the legs from under six faculty researchers, three of whom are nationally known, depriving them of their ability to continue their work.

The three researchers are:

Pomologist Esmaeil “Essie” Fallahi. Fallahi, originally from Iran, set up the pomology program at Parma 22 years ago, and since then it has gained an international reputation. His pioneering work created from scratch the now rapidly growing table grape industry in Idaho ¬– and is expanding it into raisins. He introduced white flesh peaches and nectarines, and growers tapped a lucrative export market to Taiwan. He led the Idaho apple industry’s switch from Red Delicious to Fuji. He developed the use of Torgitol for thinning peaches, nectarines and plums, which promises to revitalize a dying Idaho plum industry. He developed water-conserving irrigation systems, especially for use on Gala and Fuji apples.

Fallahi speaks at horticultural meetings across the nation about his work on irrigation and fruit thinning.

On Feb. 8, 2008, Fallahi received the Governor’s Award of Excellence in Agriculture in the Technical and Discovery category.

Nematologist Saad Hafez. Hafez, originally from Egypt, has worked on pale cyst nematode since it was found in some Idaho potato fields in 2006. Now, he is working with USDA in a quarantine and eradication program. He heads the largest nematode program in the United States, supporting himself and eight employees on USDA grants.

Plant pathologist Krishna Mohan. Originally from India, Mohan conducts research on diseases of vegetable, seed and fruit crops with emphasis on sweet corn seedborne pathogens and seedling diseases, diseases of onion bulbs and seed crops, potato diseases and fire blight in apple. He also develops and implements plant pathology Extension programs in southwest Idaho. Some of his current work involves research into food security issues and bioterrorism.

The other three faculty are entomologist James Barbour, crop management specialist Bradford Brown and station superintendent Mike Thornton.

Budget issues

Idaho is a large and diverse state. The University of Idaho has 12 experiment stations serving farmers as varied as potato and onion growers, fish producers, Basque sheepherders, berry growers, grass seed producers and livestock producers. Agriculture is the largest industry in Idaho, as it is in most states.

During the current recession, the University of Idaho mandated university-wide budget cuts for fiscal year 2010, and the College of Agriculture’s share was 11.5 percent, or $3.2 million of its $28.2 million budget last year.

In recent years the state has been growing in fruit production, much of it in the Treasure Valley. The valley grows apples, peaches, nectarines and grapes, and lots of other crops as well. The Parma station also has the only hops research program in Idaho, and also does work on onions and mint.

Treasure Valley is where the Southwest Idaho Research and Extension Center is located, in Parma, near the Oregon border 300 miles west southwest of the University of Idaho’s main campus at Idaho Falls. While it may seem “remote” to university administrators, it’s become a hub of cutting edge research that applies across that entire intermountain region, including parts of Colorado, Utah, Oregon and Washington.

“They’ve made a terrible decision,” said Tom Elias, a table grape grower from Marsing. “This is the only place in Idaho where specialty crops are tested. It will have astronomical effects on the agricultural industry. They’re setting agriculture here back 20 years.”

Like a lot of fruit producers in the Snake River basin, Elias credits the work of one Parma researcher as being basic to his farm. Twelve years ago, he became the first commercial table grape producer in Idaho, following Fallahi’s leading work. Elias has 28 acres of table grapes that come into the market just after California finishes, and most of them are exported to Asia. It’s been a great niche market.

Fallahi also is pioneering raisin production in Idaho, having experimented with and recommended the Jupiter grape for that purpose. Elias is following that lead, too.

Grower reaction

In the first three weeks after the university announced its plan to close the Parma station, there was an outpouring of support for the researchers there.

“I have received hundreds of phone calls and e-mails and letters of support from fruit growers,” Fallahi said. “I’m humbled. I don’t know how to thank them.”

The plan announced by the university would close the Parma station, fire all of the 16 technicians and support staff and move the six research faculty members to the research station at Caldwell, 20 miles away. The administration “suggested” that the researchers continue their work at Caldwell, which is an animal science research station that has no land, staff or laboratory facilities. They suggested the researchers use farmers’ farms for their research.

“You can’t do this in my vineyard,” Elias said. He was at the Parma station in early July, putting table grapes onto a new experimental trellis system. Like many growers, they get their hands dirty in station projects.

“I’m not putting my vineyard in jeopardy trying out different growing styles or different spray materials. That’s what the station is for ¬– to try new things without risk to growers. I want them to make the mistakes, not me.”

Elias thinks the whole thing is a plot. First they cut the staff, and then they fire the faculty for failing to perform in a satisfactory way.

“You can’t do research with one doctor and no staff,” he said.

Elias, who was a founder of the Idaho Grape Growers Association, is appalled by the actions of the College of Agriculture at his land grant university, in a state where agriculture is the largest industry.

Another grower who spoke out is Rob Mann, who grows apples, peaches, pears, apricots, grapes and nuts near Payette.

“We moved here 18 years ago and have worked with Essie for 16,” he said. He was a special advisor to President Ronald Reagan. “I’m no babe in the woods and I know a political decision when I see one,” he said. “Why, I don’t know. It was a stupid decision and I think the dean (Hummel) is in trouble.”

Like Elias, Mann considers Fallahi the father of the table grape industry in Idaho, which, he says, now covers 1,000 acres, is headed for 3,000. “It was Essie’s idea and he was ridiculed for it at the time.” He also thinks the plum industry in Idaho may be resurrected because of Fallahi’s work with Torgitol, which is solving the “plum thinning nightmare” that cut Idaho plum acreage in half in the last decade.

Mann was the founder and first president of the Idaho Table Grape Association.

Not over yet

While the announced plan would have the bloodletting done and the station closed by the end of the year, the growers and faculty and staff at Parma weren’t convinced it was a done deal ¬– even before the intervention from higher up.

The decision to close the Parma station was announced by Dean Hammel June 17, two weeks before the new university president, Duane Nellis, arrived from Kansas and took office. Nellis walked into the hornet’s nest. He visited the Parma station on July 6 and two days later, in a joint appearance with the state’s governor, announced the decision was on hold.

Nellis cited as reasons that the dean exceeded his authority and could not close the facility without approval of the university’s board of trustees or the state’s board of education.

Nick Gier, a retired professor of philosophy who is president of the Idaho Federation of Teachers and represents higher education faculty members in Idaho, shared that opinion. Gier was contacted by “uneasy” faculty members at Parma already in 2006 and has been working on some “back story” issues there.

When the station closing was proposed, Gier contacted Eagle, Idaho, attorney Ron Coulter for a legal opinion.

Of the issues presented to him, Coulter responded:

1.The action to close the Parma station violated the Idaho State Board of Education’s policy regarding decisions involving ending instructional programs involving more than a quarter million dollars.

2.The university violated due process and the rights of the six tenured faculty members, and also those of non-tenured faculty and employees at the station.

3.The university has breached its contracts with tenured professors. By moving them to Caldwell, they are being “constructively demoted” and will not be able to perform their jobs. “If the university requires that professors do research but does not provide the tools, equipment or location for (them) to do such work, then the university has set the tenured professors up for failure,” he said. Tenured faculty may be fired for commission of a felony, moral turpitude or professional incompetence.

4.The university has breached its “implied contract” with growers who, believing they could rely on the Parma station for information vital to their farming efforts, provide funding and other support for the programs there.

Gier believes the closing would also violate contracts the researchers have with USDA and other organizations that provide grant funding for research at the station.

He also said that the college dean has violated procedures by setting up his own private “blue ribbon” commission to study the 12 experiment stations ¬¬¬– and then ignored its findings. Of the 12, Parma was ranked No. 3 in its productivity and importance to farmers, yet it was chosen for closing.

Gier said he has worked on about 100 cases involving faculty members over the last 35 years, getting issues settled in informal meetings or in litigation. He recalled events of 1981-82, when the university’s college of agriculture declared “financial exigency” in making a decision to fire 17 people, including eight faculty members.

As a result of litigation then, the college dean resigned and the faculty members were compensated with more than $1 million.





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