SALINAS, Calif. — Already the most productive fresh produce region in the world, Salinas Valley could soon become home to a major research center for produce. Plans are in the works.

In March, U.S. Rep. Sam Farr, D-Carmel, secured $2.1 million for a U.S. Department of Agriculture research station in Salinas, bringing the total to about $15 million of the $70 million needed to build a facility.

Farr said there is a long way to go before there is enough money to build the three-phase project featuring greenhouses, laboratories and the latest technology in crop science. Plans for the facility took shape in 2003.

“If we do this at $1 million or $2 million (a pop), it will take us along time to get to $70 million,” Farr said.

Farr said he is hoping that closer relationships between the researchers, the industry and University of California will make funding the station a priority for the USDA.

The existing research station sits off a busy road in eastern Salinas, adjacent to 140-acres owned by a community college, Hartnell College.

The college is building a 40,000-square-foot complex to house its Agricultural Business & Technology Institute, said Neil Ledford, program leader.

Construction started in July, Ledford said, and classes should start in fall 2010.

Though funded separately from the research station, Ledford said the institute could play a major roll in linking students to researchers and better help the industry by educating a workforce in equipment repair, food safety and other things.

“It gives us the facilities to complete the development of programs we’ve been adding to the new program,” Ledford said.

The new institute also will provide more space for mechanical and technical training on equipment that students lack on the college’s main campus, he sad.

The college overhauled its institute about two years ago, Ledford said, by having more industry involvement in planning classes to address what produce companies look for when they hire. Ledford said over time there developed a disconnect between what the college was teaching and what companies needed from their employees.

The institute also could show local students, many of whom come from farmworker families, opportunities for advancement in agriculture and how well-paying skilled jobs can be, Ledford said.

“One of the things that students can benefit from by seeing is that agricultural science is the backbone of this valley,” Ledford said.