Professor Decries Shortage of Farm Advisors
Viticulturist addresses withering state of UC Cooperative Extension in ASEV Merit Award speech
The retired professor and researcher recalled that when he came to Davis in the 1980s, about 450 University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) employees served farmers of all types around the state, bringing them up to date on the latest research and helping them solve problems in their vineyards. Today the number has dropped to 200-250 advisors, depending on how one counts them, Wolpert said.
“If we stay on this line and extend it out, when will we get to zero?” he asked. “About 20 years out.”
As advisors retire or leave the system to join private industry, the university is not replacing many of them, due to severe budget cuts during the past 10 years. One reliable ag industry source calculated that each of the current 10 UCCE viticulture advisors is responsible for an average 73,000 acres and 700 growers. (Editor’s note: look for more on this topic in the Vineyard View column in the August 2013 issue of Wines & Vines.)
Wolpert said not to expect the UCCE to raise an alarm about its own erosion. Like the band playing as the Titanic sank, the UCCE doesn’t want to make anyone feel worse about a situation that appears irreversible, Wolpert clarified.
When an extension advisor leaves and is not replaced (as has happened in Madera, Tulare and Kern counties in recent years), an advisor in a neighboring county is often asked to cover that territory in addition to his or her own. And, Wolpert said, the UCCE stresses that there is an Internet alternative to an agent. “Somebody is going to say, ‘Well, we have an e-substitute for a real person.’ But at some point you’ve really got to be there in the field.”
He spoke about the importance of the independent nature of the farm advisors. Ag suppliers are also knowledgeable, but it can be difficult for growers to separate a supplier’s sales pitch from objective advice. “Where will you get that third-party advice if not from extension?” he asked.
Faced with a similar situation, the table grape growers of California recently decided to raise funds themselves. Wolpert said they have gathered $840,000 and are working on a method to supplement the state’s extension budget and keep farm advisors in their fields. “I hope you will consider if we can do that for viticulture,” Wolpert said.
Ironically, the generosity of wine industry icons like Robert Mondavi, the Jess Jackson family and Jerry Lohr in funding physical facilities for UC Davis has sometimes backfired when UCCE went looking for more money from taxpayers.
“There were people who said to me, ‘Any industry that can give you $25 million doesn’t need help from us,’” Wolpert relayed, referring to the Robert and Margrit Mondavi gift for Davis to build its new campus winery. “Our industry is perceived as being quite wealthy, despite what you know it to be,” Wolpert told his audience of about 350 in the Portola Hotel and Monterey Conference Center.
The now-retired professor, researcher, department chair and catalyst for many lasting projects such as the Zinfandel Heritage Vineyard apologized for sounding pessimistic, and added: “Maybe the ship will be righted….But as long as you’re forewarned, you will be forearmed. I didn’t want to leave here without telling you the reality.”
Mentors among us
Then he spoke about the importance of mentors, citing as an example his former professor, Stanley Howell, at Michigan State University when Wolpert was a grad student there. Howell, a previous Merit Award winner himself, was in the audience.
Wolpert remembered how Howell helped him find his path to a Ph.D. and cemented his belief in sound science. “Stan would say, ‘We are skeptical of our own data, and we don’t believe anyone else’s.’” Data is fragile, Wolpert said. “That is a worthwhile skepticism, as long as it’s fair, as long as it’s not ad hominem.”
Researchers should always design studies that are the most likely to disprove their hypotheses, he said. “I hear people say, ‘I am going out there and prove my hypothesis.’ But no no no, you want to try and disprove you r hypothesis, because that will give your work strength.”
Wolpert thanked his colleagues spanning many years for helping him accomplish all that he has, and claimed that he got too much credit for accomplishments that were often team efforts. He lauded the skills and integrity of the UCCE advisors, saying he would stack them up against any other farm advisors in any specialty anywhere.
He quoted Joseph Campbell, the noted author, lecturer and expert on mythology, regarding the role of mentorship. He asked the audience to consider all the times someone has helped them in their careers. “Stan grabbed me out of despair in grad school. Campbell says you did that for someone else, too, but you just don’t know it. Keep that in mind. Whenever you do your daily activity you are helping somebody.”
Wolpert also offered a quote from Robert Mondavi: “If you find a job you love, you’ll never work a day in your life,” and concluded, “It’s been a blast. I wish I could do it all over again.”