It sometimes seems that Texas A&M University in College Station has a disproportionate effect on the produce industry and agriculture at-large. Techniques and varieties developed at TAMU are in play around the globe.
That prevalence is not an illusion, according to Dr. Craig Nessler, director of Texas A&M AgriLife Research. Part of the reason TAMU research is applicable almost anywhere is the fact that Texas itself is so large and diverse that the school’s researchershave opportunities to field test theories and improvements under almost any imaginable condition without leaving the Lone Star State’s borders.
“Texas is so damn big,” Dr. Nessler said. “We did a presentation for one of the large seed companies not too long ago and we showed the gradients in Texas of temperature going from a Midwest kind up in the Panhandle, similar to Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska, down to the Rio Grande Valley, which is semi-tropical. Going east to west we have a moisture gradient that runs anywhere from 30 or so inches a year in east Texas to less than eight inches a year in El Paso. So you have that kind of a grid overlay of temperatures north to south and moisture east to west. Then superimposed on that are quite a bit of different soil types. In fact last year the soil survey for Texas that’s been ongoing for over 100 years was finally completed — literally before there were roads in parts of Texas they were out on horseback or jackass working on this survey. Now they’re going to go back and begin doing it at a finer scale. So part of the reason TAMU and our agency has had an impact on agriculture is simply because we can grow just about anything that’s out there — if you’re working the polar regions leave us out, but otherwise, a lot of multi-national companies are coming to us to really look at a variety of things and test them.”
The TAMU College of Agriculture is 100 years old, and “As big as Texas is it’s a microcosm for the global economy and agricultural development — that’s really the key here. We’ve got the variety of temperature, rainfall, soil types and we have a system through my agency and through extension that is in all those area and because we are one entity, the Texas A&M University system, we talk to each other — we don’t have to just read about it and figure out what somebody has done. In a smaller state or area, maybe New England, you’re not communicating the way we communicate.”
There is much research going on at TAMU these days regarding water usage. Clearly drought-stricken Texas needs relief. But in the fabled history of that state, there have been very few years where drought was not a threat. And yet somehow agricultural producers have not only survived, but thrived. As water woes become an ever more present problem in the rest of the world, it is a small wonder all eyes would turn to parched Texas for lessons on how to make due with less.
“How do you attack the question of water? Eighty percent of the water that is used by people is used in agriculture,” Dr. Nessler said. “We have this conflict in Texas and other parts of the country and world between urban people who don’t realize where their food comes from saying, ‘You guys are using too much water for your crops, send it to us so we can have abundant cheap water in the city.’ So we have to find solutions and we’re doing that through all sorts of approaches including adapting irrigation practices, drip irrigation and timing. We’re looking at genetics very strongly to look at the factors that influence water-use efficiency in crops and certainly in fruits and vegetables which are high value crops; we have to make sure the water that they’re using is used efficiently and that involves root architecture, response to temperature, time, aspirational aspects — we’re trying to take a holistic approach to the question of water. The price of gasoline has gotten ridiculously high but if you figure out per gallon how much people are paying for bottled water they’re probably paying more than they are for their gasoline. We know that this natural resource is something we have to protect and make sure that agriculture doesn’t get blamed as the water supply may diminish or change. It used to be people would think about drought resistance — we use the term ‘water use efficiency’ — you don’t have to be in a drought to want to have crops that use less water.”
Mechanization is a growing area of focus for TAMU as labor shortages pop up across the food-producing world.
“To be perfectly honest it has been a field that has been neglected,” Dr. Nessler said. “We have been certainly involved in mechanization particularly for crops like cotton, but quite frankly it is a difficult problem in many ag engineering departments across the country because there wasn’t a lot of funding involved — it went to different kinds of engineering including bio-energy and water. One of the things we are very interested in is precision agriculture — it goes back to water use, fertilizer use, mechanization and sensors to optimize yields while saving water input. So labor issues are big, but in Texas you do realize we share a border with Mexico, we don’t feel quite the pinch.”
“Everything comes with a cost — there’s the energy cost, so the more mechanization the more energy you use to raise your crops,” Dr. Nessler said. “The more mechanized your systems are the more subject they are to blandness to some degree because uniformity is the key — if you’re going to mechanically harvest tomatoes and ship them you’re going to have tomatoes that are a certain height, a certain number and can withstand getting beat up a little bit. I get a feeling that what’s going to happen is the organic or low-input movement is going to further fragment our agriculture; you’re going to have materials that are harvested mechanically and our manual labor will focus more on a high-end market.”
Sometimes it is a question of priorities, Dr. Nessler said. World population is “heading towards 9 billion people and that requires twice as much food as we’ve previously produced. Ultimately I don’t think we can expect manual labor to provide the food that we need to feed the world so we’re going to have to mechanize. We spent $2 billion to put a lander on Mars recently and that’s a great thing — it shouldn’t be hard to harvest beans out of a field mechanically if we can go all the way to Mars and land and drive around remotely.”