For the Capital Press

After losing 86 Cooperative Extension advisors and specialists to retirement or resignations over the past four years, the University of California program has announced plans to step up hiring and put "more boots on the ground."

Nineteen new Cooperative Extension advisor and specialist positions are to be recruited and filled in the coming year.

UC farm advisors and specialists help farmers and ranchers throughout California apply research to help with pest and disease challenges.

While University of California's Agriculture and Natural Resources program has hired 37 replacements to date, some critical positions remain unfilled. Those include dairy and viticulture advisors in Tulare Country.

The dairy position was unfilled after Noelia Silva del Rio left earlier this year to become a veterinary specialist at the UC Veterinary Medicine Teaching and Research Center. Bill Peacock, Tulare County's long time viticulture advisor retired in 2008. Kern County's viticulture advisor resigned in 2010, creating a tremendous gap for viticulture research and education in the southern San Joaquin Valley, according to Tulare-Kings UCCE director Jim Sullins.

UC ANR has assessed unfilled positions and with input from agriculture organizations and the public, 19 additional positions have been approved. Three of those will be supported in a new partnership with the California Table Grape Commission, and the pistachio and tree nut industry. Thanks to an $840,000 gift from the California Table Grape Commission, a regional viticulture advisor will be hired for Tulare, Kern and Kings counties where a substantial portion of the San Joaquin Valley table grapes are grown. Kathleen Nave, president of the commission, said that the farm advisor system is an integral part of the growth story of the table grape industry in California and continuation is critical to the industry and the communities where the table grapes are grown. The gift will fund the position, which will be headquartered in Tulare County, for six years.

"This generous gift by the California Table Grape Commission will enable UC ANR to begin recruitment immediately," said Barbara Allen-Diaz, University of California vice president for Agriculture and Natural Resources. "As state funding has dramatically decreased in recent years, private-sector support is becoming a critical component of funding important positions essential to the long-term health of agriculture throughout California."

This new funding model will enable UC ANR to hire outstanding academics to continue to conduct research and deliver new knowledge that is critical to the sustainability of farmers and to California's future.

Tulare-Kings UCCE director Jim Sullins said hiring for the dairy advisor position would begin immediately.

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