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The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) presence in the Lubbock community has continued to grow, as most consider West Texas an epicenter for cotton production.

Through a partnership with Texas Tech, this presence in the Lubbock community may further increase.

Representatives from the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), Cotton and Tobacco Program (C&T) and Tech announced a partnership by signing a cooperative agreement during a groundbreaking event on July 1, 2019 that would establish a new cotton classing facility on campus.

Construction of the facility, which started in April, will be located north of 4th Street on Texas Tech Parkway and across from the Rawls Golf Course.

Darryl Earnest, deputy administrator of the USDA AMS C&T, said the objective is to have the facility completed and going through its commissioning by July of 2021. That would allow for time to move in and be ready to grade the fall 2021 crop, which will probably start in late September or early October.

The USDA AMS C&T has 10 cotton classing facilities across the nation, and Lubbock is home to one of those facilities at 4316 Ironton Ave., Earnest said. The Lubbock facility is one of the department’s largest facilities.

“So, as we were looking at our long-term plans for facilities, we determined that that facility that we’re currently in pretty much was reaching the end of its usable life, if you will,” he said. “The facility was constructed in the late ‘80s; it’s gone through a lot of changes as have our operations in the last three decades.”

The Lubbock facility, which is a little undersized and does not fit the future of cotton classification, has undergone internal adjustments to meet cotton-classing requirements, Earnest said. But for the long term, the department needed a new facility and had to figure out where in the Lubbock area to place it.

“But it then dawned on us that we already do some collaborative work with Texas Tech, mainly their [Fiber and Biopolymer Research Institute],” he said, “and so, we started thinking about the opportunity, essentially, for us to construct the facility either close to campus or maybe on campus, which would allow us to have a little bit more of a substantive partnership with Tech.”

With the cotton classing facility in Lubbock and a USDA Agricultural Research Service facility located at 3810 4th St., Earnest said discussions about establishing another facility on or near campus started around three years ago. He said he made a lot of trips to Lubbock over the past few years to discuss with members of the university about this possibility and to determine how USDA AMS C&T could collaborate with Tech.

“The former chancellor and the current chancellor were both excited about the prospects of us being on campus and working with them, and so, it has kind of all evolved from there,” he said.

This facility will be the second largest classing facility in the world, Billy Breedlove, vice chancellor for Tech System Facilities Planning and Construction, said in a statement.

“This project is the first time the USDA Cotton and Tobacco division has teamed up with an entity of higher education for a cotton classing facility,” Breedlove said, according to the statement.

The facility will be responsible for grading, or classifying, all the cotton grown in and around the West Texas region, Earnest said. The facility can classify upwards of 3 million to 4 million samples of cotton a year with each sample representing a bale of cotton grown in the region.

“We get a lot of attention, domestically and internationally, in our operations because we’re the only entity in the United States that does this cotton testing,” he said. “We grade 100 percent of the crop. With so much of the U.S. cotton exported to other countries, we get a lot of attention about our testing because we test every bale of cotton. We’re probably the only country that currently does that.”

Looking at the facility construction site now, Earnest said one may not see a lot of visible work, as a majority of the construction, so far, has consisted of a lot of prep and underground work.

“I think you’ll really start seeing the building come out of the ground in November where you’ll actually start seeing the part of the aspects, see walls being built and metal structures being constructed, and that’s when you start really seeing a facility start to be built, and I think that’s when you’ll see a lot more attention, especially from around campus.”

Ronald Robbins, associate deputy administrator for operations at the USDA AMS C&T, said the new facility in Lubbock will be the most state-of-the-art cotton classing facility the department has in the nation and probably the world.

Insulated concrete form surrounding the cotton classing lab, state-of-the-art chillers, boilers and conditioning systems and an underground baler all are features the upcoming features will have, Robbins said.

“It’s got an underground conveyor system that evacuates cotton to our balers in the back,” he said. “So, they will receive anywhere from 50,000 to 60,000 samples a day.”

There also will be a conference room that overlooks the lab operations, Robbins said.

The conference room is one feature of the new facility that will have functions similar to an interactive classroom, such as audio-visual screens, Earnest said.

“But you’ll have the benefit if a lecture is going on or some type of interactive classes going on about something that correlates to our operations whether it’s fiber testing, whether it’s electronics and our machines or whatever,” Earnest said. “You’ll have the ability to walk over to the window and actually look down in the operation and see what you may be talking about.”

The new facility will have a significant impact on Tech and the Lubbock community, Earnest said.

“I really believe where this is gonna probably impact Tech the most is, obviously, we want to utilize the Texas Tech students,” he said. “There’ll be opportunities for internships as well as just learning through classroom learning or whatever research projects may be involved. So, there’s going to be a lot of opportunities for learning, educational exchange but also for employment and intern potential.”

With Tech graduates already on staff, Earnest said they would love to see more Tech students being interested in working for USDA AMS C&T after they graduate. Since the facility has been designed for other purposes, the department also wants to make it a collaborative location for its work with Tech.

“So, if there’s some research that’s going on that Tech’s doing that it might involve fiber research or something that we’re doing in collaboration with them, maybe part of another agreement, some of that work can actually take place in our facility,” Earnest said.

The facility’s space and functions have been designed to allow for classes at Tech to utilize the facility to learn more about cotton fiber properties, automation, analytics or any part of the cotton classing process, Earnest said. Although, the facility will not be limited to Tech and local industries.

Since the USDA AMS C&T set the gold standard for cotton testing, Earnest said a lot of countries look to them to learn and emulate cotton testing methods. USDA AMS C&T cotton classing facilities receive multiple visitors who take tours every year.

“So, we wanted to set this facility up also knowing that we’re going to get a lot of traffic through there, not only from the academia that we’ll see from Tech or the domestic industries, but international visitors as well,” he said. “So, it’s a multifunctional-type facility unlike any other facility we currently have.”

Regarding prominent opportunities for those of the Tech community, Eric Hequet, Horn Distinguished Professor in the Fiber and Biopolymer Research Institute at the Department of Plant and Soil Science at Tech and associate vice president for research, said in the cooperative agreement Tech and USDA AMS C&T representatives signed in July 2019, there is a provision for research.

“They want, also, us to work with them to try to improve the system,” he said regarding the quality of the data collected at the facility.

Regardless, Hequet said there may not be a lot of hiring of Tech students right when the facility is completed, as establishing the facility is a big operation that consists of multiple steps to get it ready for the crop season. For research activity, he said not a lot may occur prior to 2022.

“But as soon as this is done and everything is running smoothly, I fully expect we will have more and more work with them,” he said.

In addition to the cooperation with members of USDA AMS C&T, Hequet said most faculty and students in agricultural disciplines at Tech will get a first-time experience with the new facility, as most of them probably have not seen a cotton classing facility. With the facility being on campus, people will better understand what a cotton classing facility entails.

“At Tech, I think we are the only one in the nation where we can go from basic research in genetics and genomics up to textiles,” he said.

With the Fiber and Biopolymer Research Institute and multiple USDA facilities in Lubbock Hequet said adding a new cotton classing facility will lead to additional research opportunities.

“That’s a concentration of cotton researchers that is humongous,” he said. “You have dozens and dozens of Ph.D.s working on cotton-related topics. So, putting all of these guys together, we’ll create new opportunities on campus.”

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