by Diana Bulls
In the heart of Fresno County’s prime agricultural region sits Kearney, a world-renown research facility owned by the University of California. The largest of nine off-campus research and extension centers, Kearney has been the base for cutting-edge research for 45 years, helping San Joaquin Valley agriculture become a $16 billion industry.
Kearney actually functions as a small research campus with 33 specialized laboratories, state-of-the-art greenhouses and a post-harvest facility sitting on 330 acres. It hosts the UC Kearney Agricultural Center (KAC) which is made up of 20 permanent resident faculty researchers from the Davis, Riverside and Berkeley campuses. The KAC faculty is a multidisciplinary team, with expertise in horticultural and agronomic crops, nematology, entomology, plant pathology and physiology, air quality, wildlife management and mosquito research. They are supported by about 100 laboratory staff, and 14 administrative and technical staff. In addition to the permanent researchers, there are UC campus-based researchers and county UC Cooperative Extension farm advisors that conduct ongoing projects.
Kearney’s origin is tied to one of the most powerful and prosperous agricultural leaders in the state of California, Martin Theodore Kearney. Kearney arrived in Fresno County in 1869, a man of considerable wealth and a knack for land development. He was convinced that irrigation was the key to unlocking the San Joaquin Valley’s agricultural potential and collaborated with Professor E.W. Hilgard, head of the Agricultural Department of the University of California, Berkeley. After Hilgard’s soil analysis confirmed his suppositions, Kearney created a colony farm system of vineyards and orchards in Fresno County. Eventually he developed his own 5400-acre raisin vineyard and earned the title “Raisin King of California.” In gratitude to Hilgard, and with a desire to leave a legacy to California agriculture, Kearney left his entire estate to the UC Board of Regents. The University sold the land in 1951 and established the M. Theo Kearney Foundation of Soil Science. This Foundation would eventually provide the matching funds used to purchase the land for the research center named in Kearney’s honor.
In 1959, the Fresno County Farm Bureau took the lead in forming the San Joaquin Valley Fruit and Grape Station Trust, and collected contributions from various agriculture supporters to match Kearney Foundation funds. These contributions totaled $128,500 and the Mosesian Ranch at the intersection of Manning and Riverbend avenues was purchased in 1962. On May 26, 1965, the Kearney Horticultural Field Station was dedicated.
Challenges in those early days included irrigation management, alkali soils, pests and diseases, evaluating tree and vine varieties, and developing rootstocks with resistance to nematodes and disease. Early permanent research plantings included tea, grapes, stone fruit, olives, almonds and walnuts.
Kearney scientists make advances
Over the next forty-five years, Kearney scientists worked with growers to make significant advances in the agricultural industry. Some of the more notable have been:
• Pioneering work in Integrated Pest Management (IPM), an ecological crop management approach with the goal of reducing or eliminating pesticides while managing pest populations at an acceptable level. This has led to pheromone trapping, degree day models used to predict pest growth and outbreaks, and the use of reflective mulch to repel pests.
• Improving perennial crop varieties and cultural techniques, such as dried-on-vine raisin production which can reduce production costs for growers and make significant improvements in air quality or the high-density pruning system that allows early production and increased fruit per acre and is now used throughout California, Australia, Chile, Europe and Canada.
• Using plant breeding to improve crops grown in California resulting in cherries that can tolerate the valley heat, UCB1 pistachio rootstock that resists Verticillium wilt and tolerates chilling and salinity, and a noncaprifying fig with less susceptibility to disease.
• Using Geographical Information Systems (GIS) to explore distribution of pests, crops and pathogens, and then study the interactions that develop as a result of the patchwork of land use in the San Joaquin Valley.
• Developing specialty crops for small-scale growers, like grape tomatoes, mini watermelons, capers, jujubes, and blueberries.
According to Fred Swanson, former Kearney director, there are 50 crops cultivated under commercial growing conditions and about 90 different research studies going on in fields, labs and greenhouses. Grower groups, commodity boards like California Tree Fruit Agreement (CTFA), various government agencies, and California Department of Food & Agriculture provide financial support and collaboration. “It is really important to have this facility close by,” says Gary Van Sickle, CTFA director of research. “Our growers don’t have time for trial and error; we hold a lot of field days so growers can see how to best apply the research results.” In fact there are some 5,000 or so people who visit or participate in meetings and field days each year. “As growers, we are dealing with new invasive pests, clean air and water regulations, the need to reduce labor costs, and the search for alternatives to methyl bromide,” says Bill Chandler, a Selma area farmer. “We look to Kearney for sound science to help agriculture grow and thrive.”
Tours of Kearney are available Monday-Thursday from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., but must be arranged in advance. General field tours are normally 1-1 ½ hours in length and can be scheduled by contacting Chuck Boldwyn, Superintendent of Agriculture firstname.lastname@example.org, (559) 646-6020.
Tours of the specialized facilities (post-harvest research, and/or greenhouses, etc.) can be scheduled by contacting Laura Van der Staay, Specialized Facility Coordinator, email@example.com, (559) 646-6030. Depending on the group and size, a nominal fee may be charged. Kearney Agricultural Center is located at 9240 South Riverbend Avenue
As our state deals with population growth, poor air quality and urban sprawl, it is hard to say what the fate of California agriculture will be. But as long as agriculture remains the base of the California state economy, UC Kearney researchers will be looking for ways to help growers become more productive so they can continue to feed the world.