What is in this article?:
- Small farm champion of Tulare County retires
- Reaching small growers
- Manuel Jimenez went from hard-scrabble farmworker to world-renowned farming authority.
Manuel Jimenez in a Kearney research plot where he studied whether tropical papaya would be a viable California specialty crop.
Reaching small growers
"It was a great way to reach small growers," Jimenez said. "On the morning show, we gave them market news every week, and then we went into education on agricultural issues we felt were important – food safety, fertility, pest management."
A difficult time in his career came during the recession of the 1980s when many small-scale producers lost their farms. The number of small farms in Tulare County dropped from 400 to 70.
"It was heart wrenching," Jimenez said. "Small growers were so deeply in debt, when the tomato industry crashed, they lost their livelihood and way of life."
Jimenez came to realize that market forces, more than anything else, influenced the success or failure of small farms. He began to look at new market opportunities for profitable small-scale production, and saw blueberries. New Southern highbush varieties were becoming available, and, with technology to acidify the valley's alkaline soil, he expected it to be fairly easy to grow the healthful and valuable fruit.
In 1998, Jimenez established variety trials at the UC Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center. Each year, the planting attracts hundreds of people to the field station for the annual Blueberry Day. New varieties have been added over the years and new production practices researched. In 2012, Jimenez grafted the most common commercial blueberry varieties on the roots of farkleberry plants (Vaccinium arboreum). Farkelberry is a small, stiff-branched evergreen bush that is more tolerant of alkaline soils than blueberries.
The plants are growing well, Jimenez said. The coming years will reveal whether using this technique will improve the economic viability of California blueberry production.
Jimenez' service to the people in his community is not limited to his work on the job. In 1993, Jimenez and his wife Olga founded Woodlake Pride, a volunteer organization that puts youth to work in innovative beautification projects throughout the community. The program aims to channel the young people's time and energy into constructive endeavors and keep them out of trouble and street gangs. In time, Woodlake Pride created the 14-acre Bravo Lake Botanical Garden, the first agricultural botanical garden in California.
Jimenez is now working with the City of Woodlake to secure a grant to improve the safety, infrastructure and esthetics of the garden. If the $1 million grant is approved, new restrooms, drinking fountains, and fences will be added to the community park.
For his work both on the job and in Woodlake, Jimenez has received numerous awards. Among them was the first-ever Tom Haller award at the California Farm Conference in 2008. Jimenez was named the 2000 Citizen of the Year in Woodlake. He was one of three recipients of the California Peace Prize in 2011.
After working continuously since he was a youngster, Jimenez said is looking forward to traveling around the state of California when he retires.
"I was born here, but I haven't seen a lot of it. I've been too busy working," Jimenez said.
However, he won't shirk either his professional or volunteer service. Jimenez plans to work with potential blueberry research successors to maintain the research plot at Kearney, and he is considering invitations from overseas' companies to share his agronomic and community building expertise to a still wider audience.
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