UC Coop member has background in nursery crops, mushrooms and
waste management, with an emphasis on plant pathology
When Maria de la Fuente joined the staff of University of
California Cooperative Extension in San Benito County in March, she
was no stranger to the program.
I started with [UCCE] in 1996 as a farm advisor in Santa
From 1999 until last year, I was the county director. Then I was
reassigned to be a farm advisor in San Benito and Santa Clara
UC Coop member has background in nursery crops, mushrooms and waste management, with an emphasis on plant pathology
When Maria de la Fuente joined the staff of University of California Cooperative Extension in San Benito County in March, she was no stranger to the program.
“I started with [UCCE] in 1996 as a farm advisor in Santa Clara,” she said. “From 1999 until last year, I was the county director. Then I was reassigned to be a farm advisor in San Benito and Santa Clara counties.”
Though she has been on the job for several months, de la Fuente is still making herself at home in her new office space in Hollister. She still has boxes folded in the corner of her space from books she moved recently from her San Jose office. Her shelves are lined with books about plant science, as well as a few specimens of the light brown apple moth.
De la Fuente’s expertise is with nurseries, mushrooms and waste management. She has a strong background in plant pathology and soil microbiology, the focus of her PhD program at Iowa State University. Her knowledge complements that of the other farm advisors on staff, including William Coates, who serves as the county director in San Benito as well as an advisor on tree fruit and nut crops in San Benito, Monterey, Santa Cruz and Santa Clara counties.
One of de la Fuente’s projects she is most enthusiastic about is working with waste management.
“I feel very blessed to be able to accomplish research that helps through better use of resources by recycling,” she said, “by using garbage or stuff that would be discarded. We are growing food from garbage.”
In Santa Clara, she has worked with waste management agencies to collect yard trimmings from curbside recycling to be used for mushroom production.
She has also worked with Z-Best composting in Santa Clara, on Hwy. 25, on some of her projects. She will be making connections with waste management agencies in San Benito County to work on a similar project with local farmers.
One of her other main focuses has been on nursery crops.
In San Benito County, nursery crops are the second largest type of crop, and de la Fuente said if the trends in SBC follow those in Santa Clara, sales will continue to increase.
“As places become very urban, we need a lot of landscaping, ornamentals,” she said. “I think San Benito County is filling up in that niche.”
De la Fuente splits her time between her Hollister and San Jose offices, and lives conveniently midway between the two in Morgan Hill. She is still getting to know farmers in San Benito, but is excited about her work in the county.
“The picture in Santa Clara is very different,” she said. “Santa Clara is 100 percent urban. Agriculture is always on the urban edge. The issues are more related to the impact on urban [areas]. People don’t like the dust, pesticides.”
Born in New York while her father was studying in the U.S., de la Fuente grew up in Monterrey, Mexico. Spanish is her first language, which makes her comfortable talking with Hispanic farmers or field workers. She joked that her native tongue is better than her English, though she has little trouble communicating her passion for her job.
Her father was a professor who studied agriculture and he was community-oriented. He inspired de la Fuente and some of her brothers to work with agriculture in some way.
“I started to develop my own taste in regards to crop protection,” she said. “I love to be in the field, outdoors and getting sunburned.”
Her job requires her to spend about 60 percent of her time in the field, and 40 percent of her time in the office. But some of the time in the field is actually spent in classrooms, training farmers.
“We are supposed to be the main link between university research,” she said. “When [researchers] find new things, we make it applicable to the field. We are the main link between the university and the community.”
One of the challenges is that a finding approved − at UC, Davis or UC, Riverside − may not be replicated in San Benito County.
“We try to see if it applies here, or modify it to the area,” she said. “Each one has its own geographical features, and microclimate.”
One of the main issues in Santa Clara and San Benito counties is the spread of the light brown apple moth.
“The issues, when they are invasive pests or diseases, have no barriers,” she said.
Light brown apple moth, which de la Fuente calls “lbam,” has been found in a few regions of San Benito County and is being closely monitored.
“The interesting thing is, it doesn’t cause a lot of damages or losses in nurseries, but almost every single crop is a host,” she said. “They need to be guarded so they will not bring it to places that can contribute to the spread of the pest. That’s a no-no.”
One of the benefits of working in San Benito, de la Fuente said, is that people are knowledgeable about agriculture. She said in Santa Clara there is a lot of what she calls “ag illiteracy.”
“In this county, the decision-making people are as knowledgeable as the teachers,” de la Fuente said. “Here, chances are people know a lot more, from the community to people at the top.”
The other thing she enjoys about working in San Benito is that her office in the Veterans Memorial Building is just a few blocks from the Hollister Downtown Farmers Market.
“I’ve been visiting the farmers market on Wednesday and I’ve been able to connect with some growers,” she said. “This is a huge county. Thank God most of the ag is restricted [to North County].”