At the historic cotton research station outside Shafter, a new public-private partnership -- a hybrid, if you will -- is taking root that could benefit a wide swath of Kern County's agriculture industry.
Federal budget cuts shut down the 80-acre property along Shafter Avenue last year, depriving local growers of valuable research on crops, pests and plant disease.
But since then, the 80-member San Joaquin Valley Quality Cotton Growers Association has leased the property from Kern County, recruited three University of California researchers and initiated talks with the Kern Community College District and a number of private groups.
The idea is to resume the center's 90-year legacy of agricultural science. Only, instead of limiting the focus to cotton and leaving the operation in government hands, the association plans to widen the scope of research to include bees and a variety of crops -- and open the doors to direct participation by industry.
"We feel that we are able to do some things that some of the government or quasi-government agencies aren't able to do," said Greg Palla, executive vice president and general manager of the nonprofit growers association.
The work remains in early stages; since last summer, when the association executed a rent-free lease with the county, staff have spent much of their time there just clearing out scrap metal and trash.
In January, a UC cotton researcher moved into one of the facility's laboratories, and two more UC scientists are on the way.
Meanwhile, ag companies have expressed interest in setting up shop in some of the station's vacant greenhouses, labs, storage sheds and acreage, Palla said. They have proposed conducting their own research work on crops ranging from potatoes to grapes, he said.
Any such leases would need to be approved by the county, which has set aside $200,000 to support programs at the station. None of that money has been spent so far, a county official said.
Part of the arrangement with the county requires that any revenues generated at the site be reinvested there.
The college district has its own connection to the property: It owns tractors and other equipment left behind when the U.S. Department of Agriculture moved out last year.
The district's main interest now is in opening opportunities for students pursuing careers in agriculture.
"It was too valuable a facility to let the government just board it up," said the district's associate vice chancellor of governmental and external relations, Michele Bresso.
Told of a potential cooperative effort by Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, the college district has agreed to lease the equipment to Palla's group in exchange for student internships with on-site researchers.
"Our goal as a partner is to provide hands-on work experience and internship opportunities for our students," Bresso added.
Buzz on bee research
Among the proposals that have generated the most interest is bee research.
This is partly because bees are crucial to pollinating the county's almond crop, but also because their populations have suffered greatly in recent years amid a mysterious disorder and a loss of forage.
Over the years, a USDA bee expert has done some seasonal work at the cotton station. Private companies want that activity to resume and expand.
"We're giving it every shot," said Paramount Farms' bee biologist Gordon Wardell, who has been supportive of Palla's efforts. "We're trying to pull something together."
The cotton association has been in talks with Project Apis M, a nonprofit group established by beekeepers and growers in 2006.
Under the best-case scenario, the USDA would move a researcher from its Tucson, Ariz., bee laboratory to the cotton station, said Apis M's executive director, Christi Heintz.
"It's one of our highest priorities," she said.
But that could take a long time, she said, so in the meantime the goal is to establish what's known as a "technology transfer" program in which government agencies disseminate promising technologies and skills for general use.
Palla, who is more familiar with cotton than bees and almonds, shares Apis M's and Paramount's enthusiasm for attracting a bee researcher. But he said he's open to other opportunities, too.
"We'd be delighted to work with any private group that's interested in using any part of the facility," he said, "if it's compatible with other types of research that we have as priorities there."