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The California Strawberry Commission in Watsonville, CA, and California Polytechnic University in San Luis Obispo, announced in late February the formation of a first-of-its-kind multidisciplinary partnership and the creation of the new Strawberry Sustainability Research & Education Center at Cal Poly made possible by a $1 million gift from the strawberry industry.

"Applied research and innovation across multiple disciplines, coupled with access to real-world issues," will enable Cal Poly and CSC "to achieve their shared vision of establishing a world-class center focused on the sustainability of California strawberry farming," stated a press release announcing the partnership.

"This partnership will enrich our learn-by-doing approach by providing our students, faculty and staff the opportunity to work alongside experts in the strawberry industry on real-world challenges," Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong said Feb. 19 at a signing event held in Sacramento. "This partnership is an important step forward in our desire to strengthen ties with key California industries so that our students can learn, do and succeed."

"Locally produced foods are important to Californians, and we have created this unique partnership to address challenges facing farmers in the 21st century," said Mark Murai, then president of the California Strawberry Commission, in the release. "We are committed to a robust partnership focused on innovation and applied research intended to help keep strawberry farming viable in California."

Mr. Murai participated in the signing ceremony as one of his last official duties at the commission before taking a newly created position as vice president of strategy and development with Sunrise Growers Frozsun Foods in Placentia, CA.

Immediately following the signing, The Produce News spoke with Mr. Murai by phone. He said that the commission's partnership with Cal Poly was developed out of mutual need. "We have a lot of challenges we are facing," with regard to economics, the regulations, resource needs and labor, for example, in trying to keep farming in general and strawberry farming in particular "energized and thriving."

To make that happen, he said, "We are looking for the best minds going forward. We need to not only take the best ideas that are discovered, but be able to create systems that apply [those discoveries] to the fields. That is where Cal Poly is going to play a vital role."

The more traditional approach to partnerships between universities and commodity groups has been for the commodity groups to put a call out for proposals for specific industry-funded research projects, he said. But due to various constraints, it is getting harder to attract the right expertise to an issue.

The new partnership will allow industry advisors to come together with experts at the university across several disciplines and work jointly to develop priorities, "also looking at long-term dreams and visions," Mr. Murai said. "We've got to start dreaming bigger, and we've got to not fall into the trap of our traditional systems."

The new center's mission focuses on sustainability of the strawberry industry, and sustainability "means many things," Mr. Murai said. Although the word is often used today in a narrow sense by individuals with special interests or political agendas, "sustainability is not one dimensional. You have to have a holistic approach if you are going to keep going" and assure that strawberry growing continues to be a viable way of life.

The new partnership will also help the university to thrive, he said. "We have needs and the university has needs. We need to step up and look at how we bring [the industry and the university] together to help keep the university thriving and relevant and at the cutting edge of what they do."

At Cal Poly, what they do best is to develop talent, he said. "That is their core competency. We want to develop talent to bring back to this industry." It is his hope that the opportunities provided to talented students through the new center will energize them to join the strawberry industry.

"We are definitely seeing how things are interconnected," Mr. Murai said. The world is constantly changing, and "there are good and bad effects to different changes. We want to create changes that have a synergistic benefit."