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Dan Legard, Director of Research at the California Strawberry Commission, tends to a commission test plot in Watsonville last March. The commission announced Tuesday they're giving a $1 million grant to Cal Poly san Luis Obispo to establish a research center. (Dan Coyro/Sentinel file)

WATSONVILLE -- Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and the California Strawberry Commission are teaming up to establish a research and education center dedicated to supporting the state's more than $2 billion strawberry industry, officials announced Tuesday.

The Strawberry Sustainability Research and Education Center aims to bring together scientists and students from multiple academic disciplines and private sector experts to provide opportunities for hands-on learning and to develop innovative approaches to industry challenges.

The partnership agreement, sealed with a $1 million grant from the commission, runs for three years, but Cal Poly President Jeffrey D. Armstrong said the commitment is for the long term.

"We're not going to establish something and walk away," Armstrong said. "Our intention is to leverage other funds to benefit our students, and ultimately California's citizens because of the economic impact of strawberry growers."

California produced 2.1 billion pounds of strawberries in 2011, 88 percent of the nation's crop, according to the commission. It supports more than 70,000 jobs statewide.

In Santa Cruz County, strawberries have been the top crop for years. In 2011, the most recent figure available, the county crop was valued at nearly $200 million.

But the industry faces challenges, including labor shortages, water supply, pest and disease management, and global competition.

Armstrong said a broad range of faculty and students will be involved in the center, including hydrologists, plant scientists, entomologists, engineers, and specialists in packaging and marketing.

"We focus our undergraduate education on research so this is right in our wheelhouse," Armstrong said.

The question is how the nation and the state can sustain food production, said Mark Murai, president of the Strawberry Commission. It's not about one resource, one tool. It's about a suite of issues playing out together.

"We can't look at this one dimensionally," he said.

The students exposed to the industry through the center may provide the ideas and inspiration to keep today's farmers progressing, and perhaps they'll be inspired in turn to become the next generation of strawberry farmers, Murai said.

"It's not one thing driving this center," he said. "It's about a holistic approach to preserving the farmer and farming and really investing in the future. That's the essence of it."

Cal Poly has conducted similar ventures, such as work with the national dairy industry. But this is the first time the school has developed a broad partnership with the strawberry industry.

Santa Cruz County, however, is familiar territory, as Cal Poly owns a ranch in Swanton on the North Coast.

The Strawberry Commission, a state agency based in Watsonville, is focused on research, education and promotion of the industry.

Follow Sentinel reporter Donna Jones on Twitter at Twitter.com/DonnaJonesSCS