U.S. Secretary of Agriculture helps break ground on new Plant Sciences Building

officials prepare for groundbreaking
USDA-ARS Plant Sciences Building Groundbreaking ceremony on the campus of Washington State University, Tuesday, August 1, 2023.

Federal officials joined Washington lawmakers and university leaders Tuesday afternoon for the groundbreaking of the new U.S. Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service Plant Sciences Building on the Pullman campus.

More than 150 guests listened as speakers discussed the 20-year path to securing support for this new facility. The project dates back to 2003, and ultimately received nearly $125 million in federal funding for the building which is slated to open in 2025. The site was formerly occupied by Johnson Hall, which was demolished earlier this year to make way for the new construction.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack asked attendees to think ahead to a future when the facility is completed, bustling with students, faculty, and researchers looking to solve the problems facing farmers in Washington and far beyond.

“There’s an effort to try to make sure that we understand how to deal with a particular disease that is impacting wheat production. And imagine the spark, the passion, the energy, the excitement that occurs when the solution is discovered. That’s what this facility is about, that moment of discovery,” he said.

Vilsack noted the new facility will not only be a place for discovery but also a resource that farmers both local and far afield of the Palouse will benefit from in the form of new techniques and greater insight into the vital work they do.

“To the extent that we have a university and a government research entity in partnership, ensuring that that farmer, that rancher, that grower, that producer, can continue to be productive is an enormous opportunity for this country, and each one of us should be thankful at this groundbreaking for the science that’ll take place that’ll help these farmers, ranchers, and producers continue to productive,” Vilsack said.

WSU’s partnership with the USDA dates back to 1931 and represents one of the agency’s most vigorous partnerships with its best day ahead of it, said Chavonda Jacobs-Young, USDA chief scientist and undersecretary of research, education, and economics. 

The university’s departments of Plant Pathology, Crop and Soil sciences, and Horticulture will inhabit the new building alongside federal scientists and four ARS research units: Wheat Health, Genetics and Quality; Grain Legume Genetics and Physiology; Northwest Sustainable Agroecosystems; and Plant Germplasm Introduction and Testing.

Elizabeth Chilton, the inaugural chancellor of the WSU Pullman campus, noted that the groundbreaking represented much more than the beginning of a new research facility.

“It is evidence of the incredible partnership that WSU celebrates with USDA and our local, state, and federal legislators, commissioners, and communities,” Chilton said. “The groundbreaking research that this facility will support will literally change lives. This building will support faculty members, students, and researchers partnering together to create better crops and more sustainable farming practices so that we’re able to better feed our planet.”

U.S. Senator Patty Murray highlighted the university’s track record of exceptional agriculture research and how that factored into USDA’s plans for the Pullman campus going forward.

“Over many years and countless breakthroughs, WSU has earned a rep for excellence in the field of ag research and built a very special relationship with USDA’s Agricultural Research Service,” Murray said. “WSU has deservedly become one of the most trusted partners for ARS, and the WSU-ARS partnership has been incredibly fruitful, which is why this new facility has long been a top priority for the department.”

Thinking back on her time as a Coug, Murray fondly recalled to the crowd her experiences as a student, including her first political victory: Successfully petitioning for women to be allowed to wear pants to dinner at campus dining halls rather than the dresses, which were customary at the time.

Upon taking the stage, Eastern Washington Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers touched on the significance of agriculture locally, with Whitman County being the number one producer of wheat in the nation and Pullman recognized as the lentil capital of the world.

“To everyone at the Department of Agriculture, thank you for recognizing the potential of our community just waiting to be unleashed and placing us at the heart of your work to develop new agriculture products that enhance our competitiveness, will strengthen our supply chain, protect our farmer’s crops and livelihoods, support jobs here in Eastern Washington, and I know that this mission is only going to continue to grow because of this facility,” she said.

Wendy Powers, dean of the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences, thanked the many individuals who helped to make Tuesday’s event possible. Among those highlighted were Zoe Higheagle Strong, vice provost for Native American Relations and Programs and tribal liaison to the President, who provided the university’s land acknowledgement. Powers also noted the importance of a recently ratified memorandum of understanding between WSU and more than a dozen partner Tribes and Native Nations.

In addition to representatives from the federal government and Washington state agriculture groups, WSU Board of Regents Chair Lisa Schauer and Regent Brent Blankenship also attended the events.

After shovels of dirt were lifted and media questions answered, Sen. Murray joined Chilton, College of Veterinary Medicine Dean Dori Borjesson and other university officials on a tour of the Washington Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory and the Paul G. Allen School for Global Health. Afterwards, Murray and university officials visited nearby Grimes Way Cattle Lab before a meet-and-greet with the WSU Women’s Basketball Team.

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