The Texas Panhandle Vegetable Production Research Team was awarded a Vice Chancellor’s Award in Excellence for Collaboration – Partnership on Jan. 8 at the 2020 Texas A&M AgriLife Conference in College Station.
The Vice-Chancellor awards, established in 1980, recognize the commitment and outstanding contributions displayed across Texas A&M AgriLife and allow for the opportunity to celebrate those contributions and achievements of faculty, students and staff members.
Members recognized are: Charlie Rush, Ph.D., Texas A&M AgriLife Research plant pathologist, Amarillo; Kevin Crosby, Ph.D., horticulture plant breeder in the Texas A&M Department of Horticulture, College Station; Russ Wallace, Ph.D., Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service vegetable specialist, Lubbock; Kay Ledbetter, AgriLife Research media relations specialist, Amarillo; and Jimmy Gray, AgriLife Research farm foreman, Amarillo.
The team developed a multidisciplinary research program, including a model farm and infrastructure, to benefit regional clientele and serve as a source of dependable information. They established collaborations and partnerships with the Texas Department of Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service and retail grocery chains and food banks. They also developed an internship program with West Texas A&M University.
The impetus for establishing the team was recognition of emerging public demand for locally grown, nutritious, high-quality vegetables and the creation of new opportunities for research and for regional producers and retailers, according to the nomination.
To take advantage of those opportunities and “reestablish” the vegetable industry in the Panhandle, the team partnered with both new and established farmers, regional grocers, food pantries, educational institutions and agri-industry, the nomination stated. They also helped with regionally adapted varieties, information on agronomic production practices, and assurance there would be markets for their produce.
Several grants were secured from USDA-ARS, Texas Department of Agriculture and other funding agencies to jump-start a new research program on vegetable production in semi-arid, windy environments. The first funding was a result of collaboration with TDA, Texas A&M AgriLife Research, H-E-B grocers and United Supermarkets.
The nomination stated the team started with nothing but a dream and an empty block of land, and has created a state-of-the-art research facility, which now includes approximately 40 acres for crop production, six high tunnels, a six-span center pivot, drip irrigation system, irrigation infrastructure and vegetable-farming equipment.
Individual research projects were initiated on pest management, water-use efficiency, cropping systems, varietal selection, vegetable production economics, and vegetable seed production.
Small-acreage farmers interested in maximizing economic opportunities have been especially interested in the team’s work on high-value vegetable production and frequently visit the facility and make requests for information, the nomination stated.
Jenifer Smith, director of Farm, Orchard and GRUB, South Plains Food Bank, stated, “We are fortunate to be the beneficiaries of several projects, including the high tunnel research. I believe we were one of the first farms in the region to test high-tunnel production. Through use of high tunnels, we have seen the quantity and quality of our production increase, enabling us to provide more fruits and vegetables to those in need in our 20-county service area, and to our CSA program.”
Joseph Bunting, United Supermarkets producer director in Lubbock, said, “For the past three years United Supermarkets has partnered with Dr. Rush on his vegetable research efforts. … we have agreed to purchase some of the vegetables his team grows. We sell these items in our stores, which helps us accomplish our goal of supporting local growers in the areas we serve. We have also participated in the TDA Specialty Crop Block Grant Program and are currently partnering on this project. This is the first time United Supermarkets has ever entered into an agreement like this, and we have enjoyed the partnership and collaboration.”
The team also established a collaboration with Pan American Seed, a division of Ball Horticulture. Richard Edsall, Ph.D., the company’s director of seed production stated, “Dr. Rush has collaborated with us to set up some test seed productions in the Amarillo area using high tunnels. Through his effort, I have been introduced to several growers who are interested in high- tunnel production. Without this meeting, I would not have contemplated seed production in that region. Through his education program for the local growers and our company, we were able to put together a collaborative effort … to create a new production area for seed and lessen our dependence on foreign seed suppliers.”