As a boy growing up in Bakersfield, Kent Brittan was fascinated with bugs. His interest in bugs led to a career in crop research for the University of California Cooperative Extension. After nearly 34 years of advising Central Valley growers about cotton, vegetables and grains, Brittan retired on Nov. 1.
For the past 17 years, Brittan was a UC Cooperative Extension advisor for Yolo, Solano and Sacramento counties and director of UC Cooperative Extension in Yolo County.
Kent has been a great resource in Yolo County,” said Richard Rominger, a long-time grower in Winters and deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture during the Clinton Administration.
Over a number of years, Rominger and his sons have provided Brittan with plots of land for studying different varieties of wheat, barley, oats and triticale, a cross between wheat and rye. In addition to small grains, Brittan also had variety trials for corn, safflower, canola and sunflower seed production in other parts of Yolo County and in Solano and Sacramento counties to see how the different varieties grew in different soil and climate conditions, which were more disease resistant or showed desirable qualities for making flour, oil or seed. He was instrumental in starting triticale grain production in Northern California.
"Kent has been a resource not only to us, but other farmers as well,” Rominger explained. "They could come by to see the comparisons of different varieties. He would hold field days and tell us what we needed to be planting in two to three years.”
Brittan studied insects at San Jose State University, where he earned a bachelor's degree in biology in 1977. After graduation, Brittan began his career with UC Cooperative Extension as a staff research associate studying cotton at the USDA Cotton Research Station in Shafter. At a time when over a million acres of cotton were grown in California, he did research on pink bollworm, plant growth regulators and narrow row planting.
During his high school years, Brittan had had a summer job loading sacks of potatoes. Later, while doing research for UC Cooperative Extension on potato varieties grown in Eureka, Tule Lake, Half Moon Bay, Santa Maria and Kern County, he found himself hoisting 100-pound sacks of potatoes again.
"I used to know how many millions of pounds of potatoes I moved by hand,” Brittan said, chuckling. He explained that to evaluate the potatoes, more than 100 of the 100-pound bags had to be moved five or six times – from the field to the truck, from the truck to the shed, from the shed to grading tables, then back to the truck to put in cold storage and then out again to be cut for seed.
"We did this at two locations every year and had three other locations with 15 to 20 sacks,” he noted.
"A sack of potatoes is an ungainly thing to move because the contents move as you pick it up,” he observed. "The amazing thing is I still have a good back.”
"I worked with every color of potato you can imagine,” said Brittan, who shares a plant variety patent for a fresh white potato. With knowledge acquired from years of evaluating potato varieties, Brittan was part of a group of potato experts that advised McDonald's on the best chipping variety to make into french fries.
In 1995, he earned a master's degree in vegetable crops at UC Davis, doing his thesis on the effects of salinity on processing tomato production. "My family thought that was really funny because I didn't like to eat fresh tomatoes,” Brittan said.
Brittan coordinated processing-tomato research, evaluating tomato varieties to select those that make the finest tomato paste.
"There's a reason why California is a world leader, producing more than one-third of the tomato paste in the world and UC Cooperative Extension is it,” Brittan said with pride.
As he reflected on his career, Brittan said, "With UC, I've had the ability to work with so many different people and have an impact on many different things.”
Brittan authored or co-authored 16 peer-reviewed articles, 58 non-peer-reviewed articles and five cost-of- production studies. In addition, he's studied garlic, onions, bell peppers, artichokes, asparagus and sweet potatoes, crops that aren't commercially grown outside of California. When growers were losing over a million ears of corn to ear rot, he began screening the plant material and losses to the disease consequently dropped from 30 percent to less than 2 percent.
Yolo County grower Rominger lamented the loss of Brittan's expertise.
"He was always available,” Rominger said. "If we had questions we could call him up. Those are the kind of people Cooperative Extension is losing to retirement. They provide a lot of information for farming.
"The extension service is really valuable. It's one reason we have outstanding agriculture around California and the U.S. It's something we don't want to lose.”
Brittan has been granted emeritus status so he may continue small grains research, but is keeping his options open for retirement activities. Although agriculture has provided his living, Brittan said he may pursue his interests in photography and mass transit trains.