Remove the cork or cap – pour a glass of wine – it is almost time for central San Joaquin Valley (SJV) grape growers to celebrate if University of California (UC) plans come to fruition.
UC’s ‘drought’ on filling two open viticulture farm advisor positions in Fresno and Madera counties - the state’s top grape-producing counties by acreage - is almost over.
“The two viticulture farm advisor positions in Fresno and Madera counties are actively under recruitment,” said Bill Frost, UC’s associate vice-president of agriculture and natural resources, based in Davis. The division oversees Cooperative Extension (UCCE).
UC posted the UCCE job openings in late April. By early May, Frost had received several phone calls from people interested in the viticulture positions.
There are a handful of unfilled viticulture farm advisor positions across California’s Grape Belt.
Recruitment for the UCCE Madera County viticulture advisor is especially sweet news. The position has been vacant for about four years, following the retirement of George Leavitt. The new advisor will serve grape producers in Madera, Merced, and Mariposa counties.
The Fresno position opened up about a year ago following the retirement of Steve Vasquez. He helped serve Madera grape growers in addition to assisting Fresno growers. The new Fresno advisor will strictly serve Fresno County.
Combined, grape growers in the Fresno-Madera contiguous counties farm more than 260,000 acres of grapes for wine, fresh market table grapes, and raisins. The acreage is about one-third of California’s 800,000 acres of grapes.
California is the nation’s largest grape producer.
UC is getting the word out on the openings through notices in local press, trade journals, professional societies, and universities across the nation with agriculture programs. Search committee members are making personal contacts.
After the July 7 application deadline, Frost says in-depth reviews of the applications is the next step, followed by in-person interviews of top candidates. If UC decides to hire an applicant, negotiations with the finalist would follow.
Frost expects the process to last 8-10 weeks after the application deadline. If this works out, the new viticulture advisors could be hired by early fall.
The starting salary range will be $52,000 to $68,000 for each position, effective July 1.
The exact job titles are ‘Assistant Cooperative Extension Advisor for Viticulture.’ The new advisors would work on the three types of grapes.
Viticulture advisors are charged with the development of locally-relevant applied research programs and an outreach program which provides science-based information to the grape industry.
This will include insight on water and water management, integrated pest management, weed control, and other cultural practices.
Fresno County growers farm about 190,000 acres of grapes: raisin grapes – about 134,000 acres; table grapes – about 13,000 acres; and wine grapes – almost 43,000 acres, according to 2012 California Department of Agriculture data.
Madera grape growers farm about 73,000 acres of grapes: raisin – about 38,000 acres; wine – almost 33,000 acres; and raisins – about 33,000 acres.
UCCE numbers drop
Looking at UCCE overall, Frost says the overall number of UCCE advisors and specialists has dropped in half since 1990. The primary reason is reduced State of California funding to the UC system.
Frost reminds the agricultural community that when the state budget takes a big hit so does Cooperative Extension. Extension is not a separate line item in the state budget.
In addition, competition exists for UCCE dollars beyond agriculture as Extension advisors also serve in natural resources, 4-H youth development, and nutrition research and education programs. UCCE identifies priority positions statewide across all programs.
Despite the UCCE funding cuts, Frost is cautiously optimistic.
“We are aggressively hiring to build our academic footprint but doing so with a static budget. We are protecting as many resources as possible to put back into UCCE advisors and specialists.”
The extra dollars, in part, are taken from vacant positions tied to retirements and those leaving UCCE employment.
In the 20 years Frost has been with UC, 2013 was the first year when UCCE turned the downward spiral in advisor numbers into a slight increase by a one advisor margin.
“At least we have changed the curve,” Frost said. “We are committed to aggressively rebuilding the Cooperative Extension footprint of advisors and specialists around the state.”
In the Fresno-Madera viticulture case, grape association leaders have bent the ears of UC leadership to accelerate the hiring process via letters and face-to-face meetings with university leaders, including Frost.
Vocal leaders include Nat DiBuduo and Emilio Miranda of Allied Grape Growers (AGG), Peter Vallis of the San Joaquin Valley Winegrowers Association, John Aguirre of the California Association of Winegrape Growers, former UCCE Fresno County viticulture advisor Steve Vasquez, Rick Stark with Sun-Maid, Kathleen Nave of the California Table Grape Commission, and Jean-Mari Peltier of the National Grape and Wine Initiative.
In an April 2 letter to Frost and UC Vice-President and Cooperative Extension Director Barbara Allen-Diaz, AGG President DiBuduo expressed the serious need to fill the SJV viticulture vacancies.
DiBuduo says growers are dealing with unprecedented drought, new invasive pests, new rootstocks and plant materials, financial demands to increase yields, and Byzantine regulations and restrictions tied to health and human safety.
There is not a single UC grape and viticulture farm advisor, says DiBuduo, between Merced and the Tehachapi Mountains to help the San Joaquin Valley growers who farm 60-70 percent of California’s total grape acreage.
“We need to pull the trigger and hire somebody,” DiBuduo said.
AGG is a California wine grape marketing cooperative serving about 600 grower members in major California wine grape regions.
“The San Joaquin Valley is the most important grape-producing region in the western hemisphere,” DiBuduo said. “Our growers are falling behind since the research conducted on their behalf by our world-renown university is not getting transmitted from the campuses and stations to their farms.”
He says UC is actively recruiting candidates for viticulture positions in Tulare and Kern counties, plus the North Coast.
Emilio Miranda, AGG viticulturist, says farm advisors offer grape growers independent, science-based knowledge.
“The farm advisor acts as the scientist who provides neutral information. They are not salesmen,” Miranda said.
“There is a lot of information out there but you need someone giving you the straight scoop with no sprinkles on it.”
DiBuduo urges UC to hire the best available candidates. He contends the salary range for the positions are low and should be increased to keep the advisors over the long run.
“They (UC) need to pay enough to get a qualified viticulture advisor.”
Farm advisors should not be hired at the low end of the scale, he added, but should be compensated based on their capabilities and value to the grape industry.
DiBuduo praised Extension leaders for their vision toward viticulture curriculum and internships. Without these there could be a potential vacuum.