MARICOPA — Large areas around Maricopa are dedicated to agriculture, a resource that has provided for the community since the 1930s.

The U.S. Arid Land Agricultural Research Center has made multiple nationally recognized achievements within the past year. Part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it has been in place since 2006 as an addition to the University of Arizona’s Maricopa Agricultural Center to “develop environmentally friendly agricultural practices for arid climates,” according to the USDA. Cotton farming has been a major factor in Maricopa, next to cattle, alfalfa, peas, melons, citrus and pecans.

The facility has a multidisciplinary research center that includes the U.S. Water Conservation Laboratory and Western Cotton Research Laboratory. Major scientific accomplishments have been made previously at both of the laboratories, developing integrated management techniques to improve cotton production, control pests and improve methods for crop irrigation.

Twenty scientists work in the center divided within three research groups: pest control and plant pathogens, crop improvement and, third, water conservation. The individual groups have made remarkable accomplishments and continue their research for new agricultural discoveries.

One of the most highlighted accomplishments, according to Steve Naranjo, the center’s director, is with the biological control of aflatoxins in arid-land crops. The issue of A. flavus, which contaminates a variety of crops including corn, peanuts, tree nuts and figs, has become prevalent in warmer production areas and has become an economic threat to the farming industry.

A research group from the Arid Land Research Center has partnered with local growers to bring biological control technology, including aflatoxin biological control. The technology was first used in Arizona and is now available for commercial use.

Other accomplishments include: improving estimates of maize water use, development of a novel non-destructive marking technique for tracking bees and characterization of genetic diversity in a USDA guayule plant.

Though these accomplishments may be tough to understand, in non-scientific terms, they are taking full advantage of the natural resources and ultimately advancing the agricultural industry.

“We are just trying to make all the crops that we grow currently more productive and produce in a more economically efficient way,” Naranjo said. “We look for opportunities to introduce new crops in the region that might be a little more water efficient, such as the guayule plant.”

Guayule is a desert plant that can thrive on less water and is a resource for rubber and a special type of latex that does not contain a certain type of protein, which will benefit the tire and other industries around the globe. In recent years, Bridgestone has gotten interested in producing guayule as a commercial crop to supply its manufacturing, according to Naranjo.

Naranjo along with seven other researchers from the center were recognized for their research by a variety of scientific societies they belong to. Naranjo received the 2018 Distinguished Scientist Award from the International Organization of Biological Control. It recognized his outstanding contributions to furthering the science and implementation of biological control.

Naranjo’s background is in entomology, the study of insects. His research is focused on integrated pest management and finding the most efficient and economical ways for managing insect problems in field crops, with particular focus on cotton.

“I’m just a curious person and just love learning new stuff,” Naranjo said. “We’re just naturally curious. And we want to make a difference in people’s lives.”

Aside from getting recognized for their research, the center works closely with local growers in the area, focusing on supplying practical solutions to agricultural problems.

“The work that we do really influences locally first,” Naranjo said. “So our customers are the growers, ultimately.”

For the future, the center is focusing on trying to develop an agriculture that is a lot more resilient to water shortages.

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