The old house in which Jim Duarte was born 83 years ago still stands on the property where he, his wife of 61 years, Anita, and their sons, John and Jeff, continue a nursery tradition that decades ago revolutionized commercial grapevine and nut tree production.
Though Jim and Anita still spend time working in the Duarte Nursery office — each year between Thanksgiving and Christmas she can be found in one of the greenhouses managing poinsettia sales — the day-to-day operations now belong to John (company president) and Jeff (vice president in charge of nursery operations). The footprint of the nursery at the edge of Hughson, Calif., has grown considerably since its founding in 1989.
Wine grape vines have always been a mainstay. In the years since Jim took a chance on some new technology in the viticulture industry, Duarte Nursery has also produced fruit and nut trees. Fruit trees are no longer part of the operation, but almonds, pistachios, and walnuts are.
Jim’s early days in agriculture began in 1961 as a partner in a farm labor company. By 1969, after deciding he needed a change, he would sell his stake in the Hughson, Calif., company to his partner.
“I had a family to support and was looking for something else to do,” he says. He transitioned to nurseries in the early 1970s, starting first in the Fallbrook area with some partners who could match his ideas with their financing abilities. “I didn’t have the money, but I had the ideas,” he says.
The problem in the industry at the time was viruses — grape vines had them, and there seemed to be no way to propagate vines without disease, which was debilitating to vine growth, and later was found to be a significant detriment to yield potential. Through a series of introductions and discoveries Duarte championed a process he didn’t develop, but was able to capitalize upon.
Decades ahead of building Duarte Nursery at Hughson, he learned in 1989 about a USDA plant pathologist, Dr. Austin Goheen, who was pioneering a heat-treatment method to develop virus-free vines in his lab at the University of California. The heat treatment allowed cuttings to be made from the tip of the vine, where disease was not present in those cells.
Viruses move from cell to cell in the plant, Duarte says, but the viruses never quite made it to the tip of the plant when placed in a heat chamber. “So, if you could get a small piece of that tip to propagate, then you’d have a virus-free vine.”
Goheen’s research became Duarte’s success. While the industry today has more precise ways to propagate disease-free vines, Goheen’s methods worked well for Duarte, who enhanced his propagation efforts by growing vines in plastic containers in greenhouses, something nobody else was doing at the time.
For use of the heat-treatment method, the University of California received a 5-cent royalty on vines produced, Duarte says. “We didn’t invent the clean stock, we just took advantage of it and sold it to farmers.”
PLANTING CONTRACTS INITIATED
His ability to pioneer new ideas based on industry observations didn’t stop there. At the time. he had a small vineyard of wine grapes he says wasn’t worth much. A cousin who was working for Ernest and Julio Gallo continually told stories of how Gallo couldn’t keep up with demand.
That led Duarte to do research on the California wine grape industry, and he quickly discovered that wine grape plantings were flat, while yearly wine consumption was growing more than 10 percent. He knew the nursery industry at the time couldn’t keep up with that demand. “I figured those guys were going to run out of grapes,” he says.
His method of growing vines in pots worked in the greenhouse — but didn’t sell well with farmers accustomed to planting bare-root cuttings in the soil. “It was a hard sell,” Duarte says, “because they couldn’t understand why you’d put a little potted plant out there instead of a rooting. We made vines all through the summer, but we couldn’t sell them all because farmers didn’t understand the idea of a pot.”
Shortly after Duarte finished construction on his Fallbrook nursery, Gallo implemented 13-year planting contracts, the first time in the history of the industry a winery would pay growers to plant a specific variety for such a long period of time. “I saw this coming, and hit it on the nose,” he says. “So, by the time I had production in place they had their contracts.”
As the industry grew and investors jumped in, they too would at first be reluctant to try the potted vine method. But that all changed as early investors, not understanding the timing of planting grapes, wound up with dead cuttings after having spent the spring and summer months preparing the ground for planting.
“All the sudden they needed our potted vines,” Duarte says, “because they couldn’t get anything to grow out there otherwise. We shipped vines in August, September, and October of that year. Nobody had ever heard of that before.”
INDUSTRY GROWING PAINS
As the industry grew, investors began planting on rangeland not entirely suitable for such ventures. “Before there was drip irrigation, people were planting on rangeland and irrigating with sprinklers — a bad idea because it enhanced rot in the grapes.”
Moreover, because nobody was going to school at the time to study viticulture, investors seeking to minimize their overhead simply hired the same cowboys working the nearby cattle. “People didn’t go to school to become a viticulturist back then because there was no money in it,” Duarte says.
In the late 1980s, when the Duartes built their current facility, the wine grape industry was in a state of flux. He was still producing a few disease-free vines in southern California as the wine market began to improve.
One day a local farmer showed up at his vineyard on the Hughson ranch where he grew up, wanting to make some cuttings from Duarte’s vines. Duarte was puzzled at first, but decided to let the man make the cuttings on the conditions that he paid for what he took and pruned the vines when he was finished. The incident suggested to Duarte that there was a demand for disease-free vines, and shortly thereafter he built his nursery.
“We built our nursery on demand,” he says. “We’ve always done everything we could to get the cleanest vines possible.”
By the late 1990s, he began propagating trees — at first, fruit frees, then nuts. To set themselves apart from the competition, Duarte took to the lab and began propagating clonal rootstocks. “We didn’t invent clonal rootstocks, we simply distributed them,” he says. Today, he is largely out of the fruit tree business, but the nursery still produces pistachios, almonds, and walnuts.
Jim Bennett and Jim Duarte attended high school together in the Hughson area. Today Bennett farms near Hickman, Calif., and for years he had watched a particular almond tree on his farm, trying his hand at budding that tree to others. For about 20 years Bennett budded the original tree to other almonds.
Then he called Duarte. The conversation led to Duarte agreeing to experiment with and promote the new variety Bennett had discovered. Duarte helped develop and market the Bennett-Hickman almond variety, while Bennett owns the patent.
“The deal about this nut,” Duarte says, “is that it can produce a heavier crop than the industry mainstay, Nonpareil, while commanding Nonpareil prices. Kernel sizes between the two nuts is nearly identical, and Bennett-Hickman trees appear to be somewhat larger, with thicker branches, than Nonpareils. Last year, we got 37 percent more Bennett-Hickmans than Nonpareils.” He currently farms 40 acres of Bennett-Hickmans and Nonpareils in alternating rows on the south side of Modesto.
Duarte has set up time delay cameras in his orchard to watch when the trees bloom. They bloom “right to the day with each other,” he says, adding that the Nonpareils harvest about 10-14 days ahead of the Bennett-Hickmans.
Duarte is quick to say he’s proudest of his family. His wife, the former Anita Scheuber, grew up on the Scheuber ranch south of Modesto, where they now have their Bennett-Hickman almond orchard.
Professionally, Duarte is most proud of the success he’s had marketing clean, potted vines to an industry that decades ago suffered with diseased vines. Today, clean vines can produce up to three times the yield as in the earlier days. Conversion of the industry to use of potted vines over bare-root plants is yet another of his accomplishments.
“I think the biggest effect I had on agriculture was recognizing the value of the heat-treated vine and getting it out there to the customers,” he says.