Fred Swanson, director of the University of California Kearney Research and Extension Center near Parlier, Calif., for the past 26 years, guided the transformation of a quiet UC field station in rural Fresno County into a world-class agricultural research facility. He retires June 29.
Kearney now offers nearly all of the same research support tools for agricultural scientists in the heart of California's San Joaquin Valley that they would find on campuses. This expanded vision for Kearney, he said, was crafted decades ago under the leadership of the late UC vice president of agriculture and natural resources James Kendrick.
"He looked way into the future," Swanson said. "That's when all of us developed the visionary plan for Kearney that we have been implementing ever since."
Swanson became the force behind Kendrick's lofty ideas. When he took the reins at Kearney in 1983, Swanson already had an appreciation for the UC Cooperative Extension mission and the well-established local contacts to launch his active career.
Raised on a family farm just five miles from Kearney, Swanson left home for college at UC Davis, where he earned a bachelor's degree in viticulture in 1965. Looking for adventure, Swanson took a position growing food for thousands of expatriate and local workers constructing dams in West Pakistan. Three years later, with the job done and West Pakistan's electric capacity doubled, the 35-acre farm was turned over to the Pakistani army and Swanson returned to California.
He took a post managing a wine grape vineyard in the McDowell Valley of Mendocino County. When the ranch owner sold, Swanson headed back to the central San Joaquin Valley and was soon hired as a UC Cooperative Extension viticulture farm advisor for Fresno County.
"I consider those the 'glory days' of Cooperative Extension," Swanson said. "We had a very strong group of advisors; I had a lot of support. You could go up and down the hall and really benefit from the many different minds."
"The growers were more than just my clientele," Swanson continued. "I grew up here so I understood these people. There was a grape planting boom going on and a lot of the growers didn't have experience in vineyards -- with planting, insect and disease problems. We created many wonderful personal relationships with these people."
Interested in getting back to the business of farming himself, Swanson left UC in 1978 to expand his family farm and manage other farming operations. A chance meeting with legendary viticulture specialist Fred Jenson led Swanson to apply for the opening at Kearney in 1983, a position he held until retirement.
An early addition to Kearney during Swanson's tenure was the 1985 purchase of 75 acres of farmland across the street from the original parcel, which brought the total amount of land available for research on about 45 different varieties of agricultural crops -- including stone fruit and nut crops, raisin, wine and table grapes, specialty vegetables, blueberries and kiwifruit -- to 330 acres.
One of the first, and perhaps still the most visible, improvements Swanson helped direct was the construction of a two-story, state-of-the-art laboratory, office and meeting complex, dedicated with great fanfare in 1989. The building became Kearney's focal point and provided laboratories and offices for UC scientists, who were recognized worldwide for their pioneering agricultural research. They moved out of single-wide trailers scattered on the grounds and into space that appropriately reflected their distinction and enabled more collaboration.
Three years later, UC officials gathered again at Kearney to cut a ribbon in front of the F. Gordon Mitchell Postharvest Laboratory, a modern research facility equipped with 18 temperature- and humidity-controlled chambers, eight of which are capable of controlled atmospheres. The facility has allowed UC scientists to greatly expand the knowledge and understanding of postharvest technologies that improve food quality, safety and supply for consumers while sustaining natural resources.
Another milestone achieved at Kearney under Swanson's direction was the development of a 20,000-square-foot greenhouse complex, completed in 2003. This research facility gave valley agricultural scientists access to 24 high-quality greenhouse modules with computer-controlled heating, cooling and lighting systems.
Last year, Swanson oversaw the dedication of a stand-alone sensory laboratory adjacent to the postharvest center. The laboratory's six isolated tasting booths, dedicated area for developing descriptive profiles of products and a separate preparation area allows scientists to conduct systematic fruit quality, taste and texture testing with a minimum of distracting odors, sounds and visuals. This type of research leads to tastier fruit for consumers.
The innovations will not cease when Swanson retires. He has helped to lay the groundwork for development of a new research insectary at the UC center in 2011. This modern facility will provide entomologists with light- and temperature-controlled chambers to rear a wide variety of insect colonies for research.
"Our planning must begin years in advance," Swanson said. "We don't build capital structures unless we plan to use them for 50 years. Some of the current plans for Kearney's future go back to my first five years on the job."
Swanson called the continuous planning, expansion and building at Kearney "fun and exciting," but he said that the only thing he will miss during retirement are the people he has worked with.
"I have met and worked with many really wonderful people," Swanson said. "I have been the lucky one."
Swanson said he and his wife Cheryl will stay in their new Kingsburg home during retirement, but they have many plans for travel and recreation. The Swansons will spend more time at their cabin at Huntington Lake, play more golf at the Kings River Golf and Country Club and maintain a busy schedule of fishing and hunting trips. Swanson already has plans for two more fishing trips this year in Alaska, pheasant hunting in South Dakota, duck hunting in Tulelake, dove hunting in Kingsburg and a first-time elk hunting trip in Colorado.
"Life is really good!" Swanson said.