Investment in Ag Centers Said to be 'Game Changer'

Fred Ziari
Fred Ziari, president of IRZ Consulting, talks about the wide-ranging benefits of investing in three new ag-related centers in Umatilla and Morrow counties.

Every year another 130 million people are born around the world, while 30 million of us die annually. That leaves a net gain of 100 million new mouths to feed each year. And because the agriculture industry is tasked with feeding the globe’s population, it makes sense that more farmland is needed to keep up with the demands of a hungry world.

But instead of developing new farmland, the world is actually losing farmland on an annual basis. Fred Ziari, president of IRZ Consulting, a global company based in Hermiston, said the world needs to add about 10 million acres of irrigated farmland each year.

“But we are not doing that,” he told the Hermiston City Council this week. “As a matter of fact, in the U.S., we are losing about 1 million acres of farmland every year.”

So, we’re doomed, right?

Well, not quite. It just means farmers in Eastern Oregon and around the world have to work harder and smarter to get the most out of the acres they have and Blue Mountain Community College wants to help them do just that.

Ziari, along with Casey Beard, director of grants for BMCC, shared with the city council the college’s plans for three new centers in Eastern Oregon that will help the area maintain its status as the leader in irrigated agriculture around the world. The plans include an animal science center in Pendleton, a food processing center in Boardman and a precision irrigated agriculture center in Hermiston. Those centers would allow the college to offer several new ag-related degrees as well as certificate programs.

But the college will need to support of the public in the form of a renewal of a $28.1 million bond levy on Nov. 5. If not renewed, the levy – originally approved by voters in 1998 – will expire next year. If renewed by voters in November, the levy will cost of approximately 31 cents per 1,000 of assessed value for residents of Umatilla and Morrow counties. That money will pay for about 60 percent of the cost of the three new ag-related centers. The rest will be funded through student tuition and fees.

“Agriculture drives our community and it’s time we give it its due in our educational program to better serve the needs of our community,” Beard said.

Those needs include producing college graduates that have the expertise to step onto the farm and perform jobs that are becoming more and more high-tech. Ziari said his biggest challenge is finding qualified ag engineers to work for his company.

“This area is a leader in how to use water more efficiently than anyplace else on the planet,” he said. “Precision irrigation is the future. We need to train people who can do the work needed and we don’t have enough people. The future of farming is bringing information technology to the farm and we are seeing that now, but we need to have our students trained so they know what to do when they work on the farms.”

Ziari said the timing is right to build the ag centers in Hermiston, Boardman and Pendleton. In recent years, as other sectors in the economy have nosedived, the one industry that has bucked the trend is agriculture.

“The last five years have been the healthiest for the agriculture economy,” he said. And, he added, Umatilla and Morrow counties have led the way. Irrigated agriculture, said Ziari, was responsible for generating $1.8 billion in revenue – in Eastern Oregon.

“That’s something that is unheard of anywhere else in the world,” he said. “We have the highest yield of any crop year in and year out – right here. We have about a $500 million per year trade surplus. Eighty-five percent of everything we grow here is exported.”

Ziari said throughout the world’s history, there have been and always will be two sure, can’t miss things to invest in: water and education. Building the proposed ag centers, said Ziari, gives Umatilla and Morrow counties the opportunity to make a smart investment in both.

Beard echoed that statement.

“There are trends in education and right now the hottest degree is in agriculture,” he said.

Building an animal science center Pendleton, a food processing center in Boardman and a precision irrigated ag center in Hermiston will be, said Ziari, “a game changer.”

Not only will it produce qualified grads who can fill needed jobs, it will also keep students in the area because they know there will good-paying ag jobs here in Eastern Oregon.

“Being in the farm business today is sexy,” he said.