SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Officials with the California Strawberry Commission and Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, made the proposed Strawberry Sustainability Research and Education Center official Feb. 19 when they signed a collaborative agreement.
The ceremony in the governor’s conference room of the state capitol made the partnership official after the two groups had been in discussion for several months.
With the agreement, the Watsonville-based commission will contribute at least $1 million over three years to the Cal Poly Foundation.
The research center director, who has yet to be hired, will be responsible for seeking additional funding from the California State University system — of which Cal Poly is part — as well as from private, state and federal sources.
Research at Cal Poly will complement work by the University of California at its Strawberry Research Facility, Watsonville, and South Coast Research and Extension Center, Irvine, said Mark Murai, who ends his tenure as strawberry commission president Feb. 22.
“We’re definitely dedicated to our long history with UC, but Cal Poly has this unique learn-by-doing philosophy, which we believe will be crucial to solving some of these issues,” he said. “The location on the Central Coast I think will be very complementary in the future, and I think we need all the help we can get.”
As the University of California continues to evolve and change research priorities, Murai said it’s important to the industry to have continuity, which the new center will provide.
A search for a full-time center director has just begun as has the drafting of a job description, he said.
“Our first priority is to search the nation and world for a leader who will help bring all of the growers and the university together, and we can work with this leader to inspire our strawberry growers,” Murai said.
He said he hoped the person is in place by the beginning of the strawberry planting season this fall.
Among the top research priorities are water and labor.
Karen Ross, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, said these types of partnerships are crucial to maintain agriculture’s long-term viability in the state.
“Strawberries are going to be a model for all of us,” she said.
What had many attending the signing ceremony excited was Cal Poly’s “learn by doing” philosophy, where students are actively involved in research.
Victor Ramirez, strawberry commission chairman and a third-generation Watsonville-area strawberry producer, said young people are the future of the industry.
“They have the brain power, the expertise, the time and energy, and the desire to turn our dreams into progressive ways to improve our farming,” he said.
Not only does the philosophy give students hands-on experience, but it also exposes young people who didn’t grow up around farming to the industry and possible career choices, Murai said.
The center, to be based on the San Luis Obispo campus, will focus on multi-discipline approaches that involve all six of the university’s colleges, including liberal arts, said Jeffrey Armstrong, Cal Poly president.
That component caught the attention of Miles Reiter, chairman and chief executive officer of Watsonville-based Driscoll’s.
“I think it’s really interesting the way Cal Poly and the strawberry commission are looking to integrate the breadth of disciplines, so I think we’re going to find some gems in this relationship,” Reiter said.
Driscoll’s already benefits from the flow of talent from Cal Poly, both from interns and graduates it hires, he said.