UCD opens cutting-edge ag complex

The $18 million plan science facilities combine traditional farming with high-tech research.

By Pamela Martineau -- Bee Staff Writer

Published Thursday, October 16, 2003

Bolstering its position as one of the world's pre-eminent agricultural research institutions, UC Davis on Wednesday unveiled a new state-of-the-art complex of plant sciences buildings.

Featuring computer-controlled greenhouses and laboratories for seed biotechnology, the $18 million complex of facilities unites time-honored methods of farming with cutting- edge genomic research to strengthen agriculture throughout the state and world.

"If you look at all of the crops in California, not one hasn't been improved by some research at UC Davis," said UC Davis Chancellor Larry Vanderhoef.

"The plant sciences at UC Davis have a long, commendable tradition of contributing to the well-being of the state of California," he said.

The facilities on the western reaches of campus were funded through federal grants and private and state dollars. Planning for the facilities began more than five years ago. Most of the research now housed in the new buildings has been ongoing at the campus, but will now be consolidated in the complex of more modern facilities.

"These are just buildings, but we are excited because the teaching and research that will occur here will advance our understanding of how plants function and lead to new and better crops and farming systems," Michael Parrella, associate dean of agricultural sciences, said in a statement announcing the grand opening.

In the new Plant Reproductive Biology facility, researchers will continue developing techniques to improve the quality of fruits and seeds. Over the years, researchers have cultivated tomatoes with resistance to black mold and pistachios with resistance to infections.

The campus's Seed Biotechnology Center, which is housed inside the new Plant Reproductive Biology facility, unites UCD researchers with private researchers in the seed industry. The scientists work to genetically enhance seeds that will develop into crops that are resistant to insects, weeds and diseases.

The complex of six new buildings and greenhouses unveiled Wednesday is built around the university's existing student farm. At the farm, UC Davis students grow organic produce and sell the food to faculty, students and staff members each week. Schoolchildren from throughout the region also visit the farm to learn about planting and crops.

On Wednesday, second- and third-graders from an elementary school in Vacaville assembled bouquets of herbs that had been picked from the gardens.

"I don't think kids get enough education in farming," said Bonnie Ogden, a parent volunteer from Vacaville. "These kids grow up and they haven't touched dirt. They haven't pulled a weed."

Next to the student farm is the new Bowley Plant Science Teaching Center, offering classrooms and lecture halls for more in-depth instruction on plants and farming.

More than 200 people wandered through the complex of new buildings to view exhibits displayed by researchers. At one exhibit, researchers showcased an automated herbicide sprayer for cotton and tomatoes. The sprayer is directed to spray herbicide on weeds after a video camera takes a digitized photo of the crop line, showing where the weeds are located.

The video camera is pulled through the crop rows on a tractor.

Inside the new Core Greenhouse Complex, researchers are growing a wide variety of crops in the 27,000-square-foot facility. The temperature in the facility is computer controlled, allowing researchers to spike the heat if they wish to study heat stress or lower it to study the impacts of cooler temperatures.

The greenhouses are open to researchers from many departments on campus, eliminating the potential for "turf wars," said Chuck McGinn, an associate architect at UCD who managed the greenhouse project.

"The whole idea allows for a more efficient utilization of the space so they don't sit empty between projects," McGinn said.

About the Writer The Bee's Pamela Martineau can be reached at (530) 757-7119 or pmartineau@sacbee.com.