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Water utilization learning center opens

Water is a vital element in food production. Helping farmers better manage water utilization for crop productivity is the stated focus of Monsanto Co.'s Water Utilization Learning Center, which opened recently at Gothenburg, Neb.

More than 200 farmers, government officials and industry representatives attended the grand opening at the center, located about two miles south of Gothenburg.

The Water Utilization Learning Center, the first of its kind in agriculture, is a $6 million facility designed for studying cropping systems comprised of genetics, agronomic practices and biotech traits, including water-use efficiency technologies such as drought-tolerant cropping systems.

Monsanto officials say the center will help the company advance research to help improve farmers' productivity in the western Great Plains while gaining a better understanding of water use by crops.

The overall goal is to help produce more crops with fewer inputs, said Dr. Robb Fraley, Monsanto chief technology officer.

"Ag is at the center of our global challenges, which include population and income growth, increased food demand, considerations of ecosystem impacts combined with natural resource constraints, including water constraints," Fraley said.

"Water is a major factor in agriculture production. In any given year, 10 million to 13 million acres of farmland planted to corn in the United States may be affected by at least moderate drought, and every crop acre faces some degree of water stress at some point in the growing season."

Hungry people all over the world have changed their food demands, Fraley said. These new demands include foods that require large amounts of water to produce.

"These demands present an opportunity for us to advance the research needed to grow more with less," Fraley said.

More than 80 cropping and irrigation demonstrations are featured at the 155-acre farm and learning center. Among the Monsanto corn and soybean technologies on display are Genuity Roundup Ready 2 Yield soybeans, Genuity VT Triple Pro corn, and first-generation drought-tolerant technology for corn.

"Our upcoming drought-tolerant crop technologies represent one potential tool for addressing the challenge of water utilization, while ensuring greater sustainability and production within agriculture," Fraley said.

"Overall, I see this period of time as the equivalent of the 1960s in the computer era. We still have 30 to 40 years of advancement ahead of us before we can say the world is growing food at a highly sustainable level."

To do that, Fraley sees corn, cotton and soybean yields doubling while reducing by one-third the inputs needed to produce such a crop.

"We will be farming crops only on the best land," Fraley said. "We will share this technology with the 5 million or more poor farmers in this world. We will be changing the way we breed corn to optimize the traits that producers need in the specific areas of the world they live in."

Fraley calls raising the average dryland corn yield to 300 bushels per acre "quite doable."

"In a couple of years, every genetic marker in every plant will be mapped. We will be gaining an advantage over drought. We will be able to squeeze more food out of a raindrop."

In addition to crop and irrigation demonstrations, the facility includes three conference rooms that will be equipped with state-of-the-art videoconferencing capabilities.

The center is hardwired to eventually conduct virtual tours of robotics and seed analytics facilities in remote locations such as Monsanto's breeding facility in Ankeny, Iowa, or the company's Chesterfield, Mo., research facility, for example. The site also includes a 20,000 square foot breeding station, in which offices were moved from a small facility in downtown Gothenburg, as well as a smaller building to dry corn.

Gothenburg Learning Center Lead Chandler Mazour said Monsanto selected the site because of its location in the transition zone from dryland acres to irrigated acres on the western High Plains, adding that Monsanto needs that diversity to determine how to use future technologies in adding value to crops.

"The center provides visitors the platform to see our approach to water utilization from a systems-based, holistic standpoint--that is, breeding, biotechnology and agronomics," Mazour added. "Visitors get a first-hand understanding of how we make our genetic and biotechnology gains, and the process of reaching our sustainability goals and, most important, the goals that they want to achieve on their farms."

The process of reaching those sustainability goals will be multi-faceted, according to Dr. Ted Crosbie, Monsanto's global breeding lead.

"The biotech pipeline has been coming along for a long time. We won't be looking at just seed here," Crosbie said. "We will be looking at how biotechnology, agronomic practices, genetics all work together. We will be able to demonstrate to the farmers who will visit this center things they can really use to make their operations better and improve their profits."

As much as it is a learning center for Monsanto, the new facility is a highlight of the tenacity of Gothenburg's civic leadership to bring new industry to their community. It will not be the largest employer in Gothenburg, with only nine new full-time jobs added to a group of about a dozen researchers working at Monsanto's corn breeding research farm south of Gothenburg.

However, during the summer, the Gothenburg Water Utilization Learning Center is now open for tours. During this time of the year, more than 30 Monsanto employees will descend on Gothenburg to conduct tours and assist the full-time employees with research activities.

What this will mean for Gothenburg is a $1 million shot in the arm from new salaries coming into the area. It also will mean that it's likely Gothenburg could land new restaurants and hotels, spurred on by the influx of Monsanto employees and producers coming into the city to work and utilize the facility.

"We have a portion of our city sales tax devoted to economic development," said Mike Bacon, president of the Gothenburg Improvement Co. "It's money well spent as we've brought four companies listed on the New York Stock Exchange into the city.

"This facility will improve the lives of farmers by giving them better access to technology. It will improve the lives of consumers around the world by giving them access to more food. It will also help take the "bushel basket off the light" of this community."

Farmers can schedule a tour of the facility by contacting their local seed company representative.

Larry Dreiling can be reached by phone at 785-628-1117, or by e-mail at ldreiling@aol.com.

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