His immigrant path to the United States was a typical story, says University of California Cooperative Extension Kern County farm advisor Mario Viveros. For him, it led to a distinguished academic career that helped the county's almond growers boost their annual yield as much as 50 percent. Viveros retires June 29.
A native of Panindicuaro in the Mexican state of Michoacán, Viveros' father came to the United States at the beginning of World War II as a Bracero. For two decades, he faithfully sent money to his wife and visited the family in Mexico every three years. With the support of his grateful Imperial County employer, the family was reunited in Holtville in 1961. Viveros was in the sixth grade.
The transnational relocation and new living arrangements weren't easy, he said. The family moved to Parlier, where all the children joined their father working in the fields. Ultimately, four of the six children would go to college, including Viveros.
"By the time I went to college, I knew how to prune fruit trees and grapevines. I had hands-on experience. I wanted to understand what makes plants work the way they did," he said.
Viveros earned a bachelor's degree in agriculture science management in 1972 and a master's degree in horticulture in 1985 at UC Davis. In 1977, he joined an internship program with UC Cooperative Extension, working closely with veteran farm advisors who were approaching retirement. In Stanislaus County, his mentor was the late Norman Ross.
"He was the best farm advisor that I ever met," Viveros said.
In March 1979, Viveros was named the deciduous fruit and nut farm advisor for Kern County, where he brought the ideas and enthusiasm he learned from Ross to the largest almond-producing county in the nation. Viveros was able to make immediate contributions to the industry.
"When I came to Kern County, I noticed almond orchards lost all their leaves by October, even though there was plenty of growing season left," Viveros said. "The trees were losing leaves because of a lack of postharvest irrigation."
Viveros teamed up with UC Davis water specialist David Goldhamer, stationed at the Kearney Research and Extension Center near Parlier, to establish test plots where they deprived almond trees of water at different stages of development.
"We discovered that postharvest irrigation was the most important thing that a grower can do," Viveros said. "With a postharvest irrigation, the trees kept their leaves and there was a great increase in production the following year. That practice is responsible for increasing yields at least 500 pounds per acre, about 25 percent."
Viveros also introduced the long-pruning system to Kern County, resulting in another significant boost in yield.
"The farmers were pruning their almonds like peaches," Viveros said. "They selected a tree scaffold and cut the branches only 12 inches long."
Viveros' Stanislaus County mentor had noted that the intern was already well-versed in pruning. Ross told Viveros that he was having a difficult time getting growers in the northern San Joaquin Valley to adopt a new long-pruning system.
"We need to set up experiments and evaluate the two systems. We have to get away from opinions and actually look at the data," Viveros said Ross advised him.
In Kern County, Viveros took the advice to heart. He conducted the research, collected data and shared it with Kern County growers.
"By leaving the trees alone and just cleaning up the center, we were able to get the orchard into early production. The first commercial crop was harvested at the third leaf (the third year after planting in the orchard), instead of the fourth or fifth leaf," he said.
By 1984, 70 to 80 percent of Kern County almond growers were using the long-pruning method. Today, it is standard practice.
"When I came to Kern County 2,000 pounds (of almonds) per acre production was a dream," Viveros said. "Now, growers get 3,000 to 4,000 pounds per acre."
Viveros also worked on the practice of orchard sanitation -- the clearing of all old nuts from the orchard after harvest -- for insect control. He researched plant nutrition and studied San Jose scale, mites, ants and other pests and diseases.
"Giving growers information about treatments is a tremendous help to them when almond prices drop below production costs," Viveros said.
Following retirement, Viveros said he plans to stay in Kern County, even though his fourth child will follow her siblings to Southern California in the fall.
"After 28 years, you have roots in the community," Viveros said. "Bakersfield has been a very good town for us. The people are friendly. It would be difficult to move."
Viveros will seek emeritus status from the university and plans to write up research he completed over the years.
"I have accumulated information on varieties, pruning. It needs to be published. I'm going to come to the office and work on the things I never had time to do as a farm advisor," he said.