The word 'quit' isn't in his vocabulary
UCCE farm advisor Manuel Jimenez stands before his experimental papaya plot.
Tramping through an experimental plot of specialty crops at the Kearney Research and Extension Center in Parlier, Manuel Jimenez seems to be in his own tropical paradise.
Surrounded by rows of papayas, guavas, pineapples, mangos and other exotic crops, the University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisor is known for pushing the limits of agriculture in the San Joaquin Valley by introducing California farmers to crops traditionally considered unsuitable for that region.
"My theory is you can grow anything you want if you have sufficient money," said Jimenez. "I was reading about this greenhouse in Siberia where they were growing bananas. So if somebody asks if they can grow bananas in California, I'd say, 'Yes, you can grow anything in California, provided you have the money to build the structure that will allow you to do it.' But what we're trying to figure out is a cost-effective way to do that."
While much of Jimenez's research is aimed at helping smaller growers, which account for a number of farmers in the San Joaquin Valley, larger producers have also taken some of his experimental crops and commercialized them on a large scale. With overproduction and depressed prices plaguing so many crops today, farmers large and small are looking for that next cash crop that would do for them what the little nut did for almond growers.
"What I try to do is identify some opportunities for growers in other areas where it provides a niche," Jimenez said. "The idea is to bring in commodities that are not normally grown here but maybe something that will catch the eye of a grower and then he'll start producing that as his own niche crop."
That niche could be one of the tropical fruits. The price of papayas, he noted, rarely goes below a dollar a pound in the stores, "and those are beat up and ugly."
"So if you're a small grower and you can harvest a decent-looking papaya, you would be in like Flynn. People would be looking for you," Jimenez said.
Companies like Dole grow papayas as a biannual crop, he said, but they are often hush-hush about how they do it. The goal of Jimenez's research is to grow papayas outside as an annual crop. Planted about two years ago at Kearney, the trees look healthy and big, some producing as many as 70 fruits per tree. But the spoiler is they have not been able to ripen.
Jimenez said green papayas have their own special niche, as they are popular with many Thai consumers who use them in salads and other dishes. But unripe papayas can only be harvested for about a month and marketers want ripe ones because they demand higher prices.
"What we're doing right now is going to the extreme," Jimenez said of his experimental crops. "But we don't know if it's going to be successful. If this system does not produce ripe papayas, we're going to dump the papayas out of this project."
Jimenez describes what he does as a "shotgun approach" because he's trying to toss growers as many different possibilities as he can, but then it's up to them to take it and run with it. With hundreds of variety trials at the research center, many of the crops often don't pan out, but when they do, suddenly everyone is asking him for production techniques and research.
Take blueberries, for example. Eight years ago, Jimenez raised a lot of eyebrows when he attempted to grow them at the research station. Most of his colleagues discouraged him from doing the project, he said, because blueberries typically require cooler weather and acidic soil that the San Joaquin Valley doesn't offer.
But he defied the warnings and began research on some of the newly developed "low-chill" southern highbush cultivars, curious to see how they would do in the valley's semi-arid climate. These varieties were being grown in the Southeastern states and could be adapted for California with the right growing techniques, he said.
"With that, I figured I'd test them first to see if they'd grow," Jimenez said. "You have these plants that everybody says are going to die, and now you see that they like it here; they're healthy. The heat is not a problem for them."
Today, more than 50 different varieties of blueberries are being grown at Kearney, and they have proved to be an important specialty crop for the San Joaquin Valley. And it isn't just smaller farmers who are growing them. Larger producers such as Munger Farms in Tulare County have gotten into the game, taking what was once an alternative crop for smaller growers and making a big splash with them.
This year, California farmers produced more than 9 million pounds of blueberries, up from 3 million pounds in 2004, thanks to high prices and increased consumption and demand, according to the North American Blueberry Council.
Tulare County farmer James Willems started growing blueberries five years ago when white peaches and nectarines weren't doing much for his bottom line. But he cautioned other growers who are thinking of getting into blueberries because it is an expensive crop to establish—about $8,000 to $10,000 an acre.
"It costs money to do it," he said. "And every time you make a mistake, it's thousands of dollars per acre."
It is still too early to tell whether this new crop will be successful and economically feasible for California growers, Willems said. He laments that as with any successful crop, farmers eventually overproduce and drive prices down for everyone.
"You go and plant one of these small crops and then some guy who has $20 million decides to grow 2,000 acres of it; they're going to wash you out," he said.
Cliff Woolley, spokesman for Munger Farms, said he did not want to say how many acres of blueberries the company has planted but acknowledged the farm is one of the state's large producers. Woolley said he has already seen the price of blueberries coming down since the company started growing them five years ago. The labor shortage doesn't help the situation because the crop is very labor intensive, and if the company has to pay more to lure workers into the fields, what was once a profitable crop could very well become a bust, he said.
"We are really concerned about its long-term future," Woolley said of blueberries. "There are many crops that have come and gone. As exciting as blueberries are, they could be one that doesn't work."
And that's why Jimenez's work is so important to growers in today's difficult market predicament, said John Hurley, who grows a variety of specialty crops in the San Joaquin Valley and will be starting his own blueberry production this year.
Hurley has taken some of Jimenez's demo crops and made them work in the farmers' market circuit. A few years ago, he started growing heirloom tomatoes, and this is the third year he's been growing mini-watermelons—a red, seeded variety that is football-shaped. Such novelties have helped to distinguish his produce from others in the market, he said.
"They're working for us," said Hurley. "It's a niche thing. Plus, we're certified organic, so that helps as well. We're able to attract people who would normally just walk by. We're able to get that person in to shop with us and then they end up buying something else as well."
(Ching Lee is a reporter for Ag Alert. She may be contacted at email@example.com.)
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.