Small farm adviser makes his mark on the community

Farm advisers in California pull together a variety of skills, from understanding every facet of production to doing research to communicating with growers, many of whom are subsistence, ethnic, entry-level, small-acreage and part-time. Some go far beyond the requirements of the job.

Jimenez trimming papaya leaves at Kearney Research and Extension Center.
Photos courtesy of Manuel Jimenez.

Manuel Jimenez, the adviser for the University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) Small Farm Program in Tulare County since 1980, and his wife, Olga, started Woodlake Pride, a youth service project, 25 years ago. The efforts of Woodlake Pride have created the Bravo Lake Botanical Garden in Woodlake, Calif., which has grown from a 3-acre seasonal plot to a 9-acre year-round farm with a tropical area, a vineyard, hundreds of varieties of vegetables and fruit, as well as a botanical garden bursting with flowers, including 1,500 roses, and herbs.

“It’s a program in school,” Jimenez says. “Some of the kids are given a certain number of hours to do. They usually fulfill the hours and then keep working. It’s a social gathering for them. These are good kids whose parents let them work in the garden. Without Olga, it wouldn’t happen.”

Jimenez also helped organize the extension program’s California Small Farm Conference, which held its first annual meeting in 1983. It provides growers with the latest information on marketing, production, regulations and other topics. Because of his work and his involvement with the community, the Small Farm Conference presented him with the first Tom Haller Award, in 2008.

Volunteers at Woodlake Pride.

“I was flattered to get that award,” he says. “I’ve known Tom for many years and he is someone I respect a lot. Tom has worked a lifetime on behalf of small farmers.”

Growers in Tulare County sell mostly to shippers, and some sell direct at farmers’ markets and roadside stands. There are very few CSAs, and little agritourism, although it’s high on Jimenez’s list of priorities. It’s a hard sell in an area like the San Joaquin Valley, he says, where some 80 percent of the adult population is involved in agriculture.

As part of his outreach, he’s had a weekly radio program that covers agricultural topics on KGST in Fresno, the oldest Spanish language radio station in the U.S., for 28 years. He presents workshops in both English and Spanish in a variety of locations, including the University of California’s Kearney Agricultural Center and packinghouses, so growers can do any documentation they need the same day. He also holds field days at the agricultural center to show growers its specialty products, such as chili peppers and tomatoes.

In addition to research, Jimenez updates his knowledge through the Internet, at meetings and by keeping in touch with others doing similar work, “in all the major areas, so we’re on the cutting edge of varieties and cultural practices.”

A large part of his work is in field research. Almost all of it is done at the agricultural center, although he also has research plots on some growers’ fields. His research focuses on three areas: bringing crops in early, creating better-quality crops and growing specialty crops and varieties.

Bringing crops in early

Being able to bring crops in early gives small growers who sell in direct markets an advantage because they attract buyers to their stands, Jimenez says. He’s found that blueberries grown in hoop houses in the San Joaquin Valley ripen seven days earlier than those grown outside. On the coast, where the difference in temperature between inside and outside is greater, they ripen about two weeks before ones grown outside.

He’s also working on a technique that ripens peaches early. Last year, in 2009, they hand-defoliated low chill peach trees in hoop houses before the leaves would have fallen on their own and stopped irrigating them, so the trees went into dormancy early, in late summer. On December 1, they opened the hoop house tunnels and began irrigating again. The flower buds swelled in January and the peaches ripened mid-April, so it’s possible to grow them, but Jimenez still has to refine the technique and determine if the peaches are economically feasible to produce in tunnels, he says.

Rotating trellis system with berries ripening in the shade, end of the season.

Creating better quality crops

They’re also using hoop houses to provide shade to reduce sunburn in peppers and to prevent burning in blackberries. The higher ambient temperatures inside the hoops don’t seem to cause a problem, he says. They’re also using hoop houses for some late varieties, “so there are no issues with rain.”

He’s collaborating with Dr. Fumi Takeda, research horticulturist and lead scientist with the USDA in West Virginia, on a rotating trellis system, which will reduce sunburn in midsummer blackberries. In the San Joaquin Valley, the light intensity makes the berries very sweet, but then they get sunscald, Jimenez says. They begin growing the berries in the sun, and then rotate the trellises so the fruit ripens in the shade.

Growing specialty crops and varieties

One of the last boundaries left to push is niche crops and varieties. Some of the crops that Jimenez has evaluated include heirloom tomatoes, specialty hot peppers and numerous ethnic vegetables. These are grown for a number of qualities, such as their appearance, taste and health benefits.

This year they’re growing roughly 100 varieties of peppers and about 20 varieties of tomatoes that appeal to different ethnic groups, including European, Asian and Middle Eastern. They’re especially appropriate for direct markets. “We encourage growers to look at them,” Jimenez says. “They might find one that fits their market niche.”

Jimenez has been doing research on blueberries for California growers since 1997 and was a leader in introducing them to the Central Valley. Growers who started producing them nine or 10 years ago are doing well, he says, but growers starting now are at a disadvantage because of the increased competition.

“But the story hasn’t ended for small growers,” he says. “At Kearney, we’re growing 70 blueberry varieties. We’ve found ones that are sweeter, which are good for direct markets.”

In the last few years, they’ve experimented with growing tropical fruits in hoop houses and have had the most success with papayas and guavas. Papayas mature in the spring when prices are good, but their cost of production is too high, which makes them impractical to produce. Guavas, on the other hand, are extremely productive. They’re highly perishable, though, so they’re best suited for direct markets. Currently, three cultivars of guavas have been selected for further evaluation.

Rotating trellis system early in the season.

Bravo Lake Botanical Garden

Jimenez and his wife started the garden in Woodlake as a community beautification project, with Olga overseeing the operation.

“The city of Woodlake has been supportive from very beginning,” Jimenez says, and provided the land as well as water for irrigation. Agricultural supply businesses, nurseries and individuals also have donated to the project.

Olga works with small groups of schoolchildren of all ages. More than 100 participate each year, helping with the garden work, including planting and cleanup. For the first eight years, they grew vegetables and flowers in the summer and sold them at a roadside market to raise money to buy plants to beautify the community.

Volunteers at Woodlake Pride with some of their produce.

As the garden attracted growing numbers of visitors, Olga and the children began setting up elaborate displays of produce and flowers. Eventually, the couple opened it up as a demonstration garden and it became the beautification project itself.

When the city proposed to plant trees there, Jimenez and other community leaders jumped on the opportunity to expand the gardens. “I helped organize the community and we convinced the city of Woodlake to establish a permanent farm,” he says.

The city donated 9 acres of land that extend 1 mile along a winding right-of-way. It became the first agricultural botanical garden in the state, and a resource for small farmers interested in exploring new crops and varieties. Today, the botanical garden includes 1,500 rose plants of 130 varieties, as well as other flowers and herbs. The garden also includes a tropical area, a vineyard with 70 varieties of grapes, an orchard with 100 varieties of citrus and nearly 200 varieties of peaches and nectarines. Pesticide use is limited to one herbicide for weed control, sulfur for powdery mildew on grapes, and one pesticide for snail control.

Their field days in June and October attract up to 500 visitors.

They received a small grant to install water for irrigation, which the children will help with this summer. They’re also installing a fence around the garden, he says.

“Once it’s up, we’ll have tastings once a month. The public will be treated to tastings of different varieties of blueberries, cherries, grapes, peaches, nectarines, citrus.”

There’s a short video of the garden on YouTube. You can find it at www.youtube.com/watch?v=3mf12vdyDfI.

The author is a freelance writer based in Altadena, Calif.