- Author: Pamela S Kan-Rice
Yu-Chen Wang is a UC Cooperative Extension plant pathology advisor serving Santa Cruz, Monterey and San Benito counties.
Wang, who joined UC ANR in 2022, studies diseases on vegetable and berry crops.
“So far, I have been contacted by a wide range of growers – including those who grow lettuce, broccoli, pepper, celery, bean, apple, strawberry and blackberry – about their disease problems. I am passionate about providing insight to help the community on their disease problems.”
“The lettuce industry here is suffering from impatiens necrotic spot virus (INSV) vectored by Western flower thrip along with soilborne diseases,” she said. The INSV caused lettuce growers in the Salinas Valley to lose an estimated $50 million to $100 million in 2021 and consumers to experience a shortage of lettuce.
Science piqued Wang's interest when she was in high school in Taipei, Taiwan. “We learned a lot about biology, chemistry and physics,” she said. “Observation of nature brings many questions. I was inspired by the power of science and research giving answers.”
Wang earned bachelor's and master's degrees in horticultural and crop science at National Taiwan University. She earned a second master's degree in plant protection from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo.
She enjoys working as a UC Cooperative Extension plant pathology advisor.
“This is a fun job that uses scientific skills to help people,” Wang said. “I enjoy serving and helping the community, and at the same time understanding how things work.”
For girls who aspire to be scientists, Wang advises them, “Don't get bothered with the gender stereotypes. If science is your passion, follow and pursue your passion. Gender is never the limitation.”
- Author: Mike Hsu
If you're on a video call with Glenda Humiston when she's in her home office, you'll see the sign right above her left shoulder, prominently displayed: “4-H CLUB MEMBER LIVES HERE.”
It's the same sign that hung on her childhood home in Mancos, Colorado, in the remote southwest corner of the state. And the sign is a symbol of the influential role 4-H has played in the life and career path of Humiston, University of California's vice president for agriculture and natural resources.
“I asked if I could have it, and my dad was like, ‘Yeah, sure, I think it belongs with you' – which really annoyed my sisters, quite frankly,” she said with a laugh. “But I love having it.”
Humiston – and all four of her younger sisters – were active in 4-H during the late 1960s and 1970s. Joining the Mancos club as soon as she was able to, at roughly nine years of age, Humiston participated through high school. She even did collegiate 4-H at Colorado State University.
For National 4-H Week (Oct. 1–7), Humiston – who leads UC Agriculture and Natural Resources, the umbrella organization under which California 4-H operates – sat down for an interview about the profound impact of 4-H on her life.
You started out by showing dairy cattle and beef cattle, but you quickly broadened the scope of your 4-H experience. What else did you do in 4-H?
I did a lot of projects, not just showing the livestock – I did veterinary sciences; I did demonstration talks; I did conservation; I did woodworking. In fact, I got Reserve Grand Champion at the Colorado State Fair in woodworking one year. I made a tack box for showing livestock; I did some inlaid imagery in it. I also did a nice piece that I donated to the National 4-H Center in D.C. that, for many years, was their big artwork in the lobby that you see when you enter. [See photo at right.]
I also really enjoyed public speaking; I competed in that. Part of that was strategic – everybody turns in beef or something like that, and not very many kids were doing record books on public speaking, so I thought it gave me better odds. [Record books are kept by 4-H participants to document their progress on a project and can be submitted for competitions.]
I actually have one of my speeches about being an environmentalist when I was quite young. A little ahead of my time there. My mother said I was a very preachy child – and that was one of the times that I was!
Of the many wonderful experiences you had, what are some of your favorite aspects and memories of 4-H?
I really love the record book. I think that's one of the things about 4-H that makes it different than a lot of other youth programs. We were taught to keep a record – particularly important for showing market animals – including accounting and keeping our books: like how much did we spend on that animal and on feed and equipment. At a young age, you're learning a lot of life skills that way.
And things like the community engagement, the public speaking, these are all important skills that you just don't get unless you're out there actually doing something with it. Sitting in a classroom is not the same.
How did 4-H open your eyes to the possibility of college?
As a young person, I wasn't even thinking about college so much – I like to say that one of the reasons I even thought about going to college was 4-H, because we used to go to the Colorado State University campus in the summer for the state 4-H conference. Staying in the dorms, wandering around the campus and having the meetings there – meeting kids from all over the state – it made me feel like, “Wow, I could do this!”
I'm the first one in my family ever to go to college, and there just wasn't anybody in the family to talk about what that involved or what it looked like or anything.
That's why nowadays I think our “Juntos” program is so important. I love that we take Latino kids to a UC campus. I think the numbers I've seen are at the beginning of the week, something like 20% of them think they might go to college, and at the end of the week it's jumped to something like 80 or 90%. It makes a big difference, having the chance to see and feel.
How have you seen 4-H evolve and change, and how will it continue to adapt to the times?
I love the fact that we're doing these SPIN clubs – these special projects that are a little shorter term. I think that's a great evolution. Not every family in this day and age can sign up for the whole-year, club program. That's a lot for parents to take on being volunteers and project leaders.
Having the in-school and after-school options and six-week and nine-week options opens it up to a lot more kids. And frankly if we can get them interested in the short-term special projects, then maybe they will join the club program.
I love the fact, too, that 4-H really tries to be inclusive. 4-H has really been always very inclusive; I actually was invited to be a keynote speaker at a conference in Ohio – at The Ohio State University – about four years ago. Several states got together to talk about LGBTQ 4-H kids and youth, what were the challenges they were facing and how we were serving them. I thought it was fantastic that Ohio State and these other universities put on that event; conversations were mostly about making sure those youth felt safe participating in 4-H. It's vital that we all strive to ensure that 4-H is for everybody.
Now we would like to hear from you, 4-Hers! Tell us how 4-H has made an impact in your life, and share a favorite memory or two, by posting in the Comments box at the bottom of this story./h3>/h3>/h3>/h3>
- Author: Mike Hsu
Between 4th and 8th grade, Brent Hales had acquired from those years in 4-H a lifetime's worth of skills, a group of lifelong friends, an expanded perspective on the world – and the track suit of his dreams.
The middle child of seven kids, young Brent knew his family couldn't afford to buy a track suit off the rack. So he saved up money, bought the Navy blue fabric and pattern, and took on sewing as one of his many 4-H projects during the 1980s. Just one problem: he ended up making it inside-out, with the fuzzy side facing outward.
“And then, by the time I actually completed it, I had outgrown it, so I gave it to my younger brother,” Hales recalled with a laugh.
Hales still enjoys sewing, although he rarely finds time for it, given his many duties as UC Agriculture and Natural Resources' associate vice president for research and Cooperative Extension.
One of his responsibilities is helping to oversee the 4-H program in California, which, along with its counterparts across the country, is celebrating National 4-H Week Oct. 1–7. In a recent interview, Hales shared some of his favorite experiences as a 4-H club member growing up in Aurora, Utah, as well as some of the enduring impacts from his participation.
The mere mention of 4-H must bring back a torrent of memories, images and stories. Can you share one experience that stands out for you?
At the end of the summers, the leader of our horse club, Dan Thompson, would take us on a weeklong horse ride. In order to qualify, you had to demonstrate horsemanship, you had to be able to take care of your horse, and show a certain amount of leadership.
Dan had the kids take the lead; he planned the route but then he would ride in the back. Each day of the horse ride, we would take turns at various aspects of leadership within the week. We would get to a point and we would discuss where we were going; we would discuss points along the trail that we needed to be looking for. But, invariably, all with him in the back, allowing us to lead. He wanted us to lead the whole thing.
You could imagine sending a group of 11-, 12-, 13-year-old kids on a weeklong horse ride with a guy would be daunting enough. But the most important thing you need to understand is the amount of trust that we had in him, he had in us, and our parents had in him – because Dan was blind.
He had gone blind late in life. He knew the trails well enough that he could describe what we were going to see, and he could describe where we were going to stay, but he left it up to us to share information and lead.
You think about the types of skills that it taught us – I have cold chills thinking about that – and the confidence that it instilled in us was so powerful. In a community where less than half of the kids went on to a four-year degree program, all 11 of us in the horse club completed four-year degrees, and all of us are continuing to be very successful.
In addition to leadership skills, public-speaking skills, sewing skills and horsemanship…what else did 4-H teach you?
We actually got involved quite a bit in the arts – the visual arts, the performing arts. Because of that, I went to college on a vocal performance scholarship, which I tie right back to 4-H.
We put on an annual musical at the county fair, which translated to being involved in musicals at school and other performing groups. It paved the way for me to go to a much better school than probably was in my academic trajectory otherwise, so I went to BYU as an undergrad.
I realized very quickly how out-classed I was in terms of the vocal performance and ultimately changed majors – but I stayed involved and had the opportunity to do quite a bit of traveling and touring with various musical groups. In the last three years, I've sang at both Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center, as part of ensembles and groups. What a long tail my 4-H involvement has had, in encouraging my love of music and of performing!
In what other ways did 4-H shape who you are today, personally and in your career trajectory?
My hometown of Aurora was settled by my fourth great-grandfather, so I was actually related to about 85% of that small town. And so I had a very myopic view of what the world looked like.
What 4-H did was it showed me that there's a much larger world out there. Because of 4-H, I engaged with different kids from different backgrounds, different ideologies, different life expectations than that of my own. And it opened a world I never knew existed, number one, and that I had a place in that world.
So the thought of moving from my safe, rural community…when I was a little kid, that was the last thing that I wanted. But after engaging with kids from not just across Utah, not just across the country, but across the world, it created a hunger in me to learn and to know and to experience. And that has yet to be satisfied!
Every time I remember and relive my 4-H years, I'm reminded of why I do this job – to enable others, perhaps, to be that kid that I was, and see beyond what their worldview is, or the limitations of their culture, identity and hometown.
On top of your 4-H role as a part of the leadership team at UC ANR, you're also on the strategic planning board for the national 4-H organization. How has 4-H continued to evolve over the years?
With COVID, when I was at Penn State, we shifted online and we saw a whole new generation of kids who would not have ever joined 4-H as a result. We created statewide programs, instead of the traditional clubs, and that brought together kids who normally would not have been drawn to it. And instead of meeting face-to-face, we met virtually and we sent out activity boxes ahead of time. Then, post-COVID, what surprised us is that the online clubs – the clubs we kind of anticipated going away – those actually continued to grow.
So how we reach the kids has evolved as much as the type of kids that we are seeing come in. And it has had to – if we marketed 4-H to an ever-shrinking rural population of on-farm kids, it would quickly become irrelevant. And so the way we market to them, the way we bring them in, the way we encourage and facilitate discussion, the way topics and areas of interest are identified – those continue to evolve and I hope will drive the next iteration of what 4-H looks like. Because it doesn't look anything like what I grew up with – granted, that was a long time ago, over 40 years ago! And I would say in 10 years 4-H probably won't look like what it looks like now. And that's a good thing./h3>/h3>/h3>/h3>
- Author: Saoimanu Sope
In celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month
In the small town of Buga, located in Valle del Cauca in southwestern Colombia, Jairo Diaz-Ramirez prioritized salsa dancing over his studies. His parents, noticing that he was having too much fun on weekends, reminded Diaz that schoolwork comes first. “I used to dance a lot and spend time with friends when I was a teenager, and I didn't pay full attention to schoolwork,” he said.
Diaz, director of the UC Desert Research and Extension Center – one of nine centers under University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources – located in Holtville, was born and raised in Colombia, where the life of a farmworker was all too familiar.
Before Diaz's father joined the army, he worked in the fields. Describing his father as an “autodidactic person,” Diaz said that his father acquired many skills throughout his life and could “fix pretty much everything.” Others knew this about Diaz's father, often referring to him as “el cientifico” or the scientist.
“My hometown is surrounded by agriculture, and I saw farmworkers all the time. What they do is difficult work, it's hard,” he said. Even though Diaz has a career in agriculture today, he did his best to avoid it when he was in school.
In high school, Diaz focused on math and science, believing it would lead him down a different career path. When he graduated in 1990, Diaz didn't have many options for a college education in his area. “There was barely internet in my hometown,” he recalled, adding that it was a challenge to find professional mentors, too.
“I didn't know what I wanted to study,” said Diaz. “But when I passed the entry test for college, I just decided on electrical engineering.” As a freshman in college, Diaz found himself in a different environment with rules and expectations he was not used to. “I lost focus,” he said.
In fact, his poor academic performance led Diaz to drop out of college. He described this decision as, “the inflection point that changed the course of his life.” Realizing that he took a great opportunity for granted, Diaz wanted to return to school. After passing the college entry exam a second time, his test results matched him to the following career options: agricultural, sanitary or chemical engineering.
Because it required fewer chemistry courses, Diaz decided to pursue agricultural engineering. The more he learned, the more interested he became in irrigation, watershed management, soil and water conservation. In 1997, he obtained a bachelor's degree in agricultural engineering from National University of Colombia and University of Valle.
Realizing there's more to agriculture
There was a shift in perspective that occurred for Diaz, one that made him see other pathways into agriculture other than farm labor.
“I always saw the workers in the field from four in the morning to six at night, even on Saturdays,” Diaz said. “But I never saw what was behind agriculture. Labor is one thing, but there's also the science, education, management, engineering… I didn't see that when I was younger.”
In 2001, after two years of working as a part-time instructor at community colleges in his hometown, Diaz moved to Puerto Rico, where he earned a master's degree in water resources engineering from University of Puerto Rico. Although he would have liked to attend graduate school in his home country, career opportunities were limited.
“I considered schools in Spain and Chile, somewhere the people speak Spanish,” said Diaz, sharing that the ability to learn in Spanish was his preference.
Meeting students halfway
Eventually, Diaz moved to Mississippi, earning a doctorate in water resources engineering at Mississippi State University before he began teaching at Alcorn State University – the oldest public historically Black land-grant institution in the nation – where his role as a mentor easily became his favorite part of that journey.
As an assistant professor, Diaz said that many students he worked with at Alcorn State struggled with higher level courses of agriculture. “Some of my students started with me when they were freshmen and I got to see them progress over the years,” said Diaz.
Now, many of them work for the federal government and non-governmental organizations, and some have even moved to other states, away from everything and everyone they know.
“It reminds me of my own people,” Diaz said. “How challenging education can be, and how limited you feel, and being afraid to move away from home…that's what many of us BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, people of color] experience.”
Once a mentor, always a mentor
In Imperial County, where Diaz currently lives, more than 80% of the population is Hispanic. According to Diaz, many of the students in Imperial can relate to those he taught in Colombia, Puerto Rico and Mississippi, struggling to navigate education. “A lot of the students also think like me when I was their age. They don't find agriculture appealing because it's too hard.”
That's where Diaz steps in and shows them a different side of agriculture, one that he wishes someone would have shown him when he was younger. When he visits local schools, or hosts student groups at Desert REC, he teaches students that agriculture offers a broad spectrum of opportunities.
“Agriculture is not just about people in the fields, it's people in the labs, at the computers and in the classroom. It's people managing others, figuring out economics and building systems,” he said.
Given his background in hydrology, irrigation systems and water resources, Diaz relies on water as the element to engage students in conversations about agricultural careers. “To produce food, we need water. Plants need water to live and so do we. Water is key,” he tells students.
“I know how much of a difference it makes to have someone guide you professionally. So, I want to be that person for my community, especially the younger generation.”
As a director, Diaz has an open-door policy to encourage frequent interactions with his colleagues. “It's important to me that the people I work with know that I want to support them,” said Diaz, who prefers colleagues call him by his first name.
“Sometimes you hear that someone is a ‘doctor,' and it creates a divide right away,” he said.
While reflecting on his role and impact, Diaz said that he wants to be known as a genuinely good person. “I want to be a good collaborator, create meaningful programs, and grow a healthy industry.”
These days, Diaz doesn't spend much time on the dance floor, but he won't shy away from an opportunity to relive his adolescence. “I have created my own career path with the support of my family, mentors and friends,” he said. “I still have fun, but I also focus when I need to.”
To watch a past feature on Diaz in celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ksNc7qDCOVo.
To read this article in Spanish, visit: https://espanol.ucanr.edu/Abriendo_Caminos/?blogpost=58085&blogasset=139086.
- Author: Saoimanu Sope
The first time Chris Wong ever laid eyes on Romanesco broccoli was while he was selling it at a farmers market in Davis. Although the broccoli was marketed as locally sourced and organically grown, Wong remembers reading the label on the produce box: Holtville, California – 15 minutes from Wong's hometown, located more than 600 miles south of Davis.
Wong, CalFresh Healthy Living, UC Cooperative Extension community education supervisor for Imperial County, grew up in the community he now serves. In his role, he identifies opportunities to improve community health whether it be increasing access to healthy food, making neighborhoods more conducive for exercise, or simply educating the public.
But it was his college experience at UC Davis that catapulted his career focused on food systems and community health. Because he lived in UC Davis' Student Co-op Housing, he found himself surrounded by peers studying food science or agriculture.
“I was heavily influenced by the things they spoke about,” he said, adding that he was inspired to get involved with the local farmers market in Davis. “I started working at a farmers market, selling local, organic produce at very high prices to very privileged people in Davis, including students.”
He was troubled that the produce was transported from Imperial County – from towns like Brawley and Holtville, where Wong grew up – and yet he had never seen some of the products he was selling in Davis.
After spending a few years going back and forth between Davis and his hometown, Wong moved back home to Calexico fulltime in 2015. Eager to locate the nearest farmers market after his experience in Davis, he learned that the nearest one was in a city north of Calexico.
A grant provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture helped a Calexico based non-profit organization establish a farmers market in a neighboring community of El Centro, identified as a food desert, yet the farmers market was in a different city.
“It wasn't the same as the one in Davis. They didn't even have produce, just food and craft vendors,” he said. Wong felt motivated to make a change.
“I asked the coordinators of that farmers market if I could volunteer with them. I asked them about the process of establishing a farmers market. Then I started sending Facebook messages to city council members and other community leaders and was able to get a meeting with them,” Wong said.
A fresh start for his hometown
On Oct. 6, 2013, Wong and a few others launched the first-ever farmer's market in Calexico. Wong described opening day as “almost a failure” because of the lack of available produce. “It was really tough; we had a lot of build up for it. We had a distributor who came to provide produce, but it took a while before we got produce vendors to the site,” he said.
Even though Wong's hometown is also home to 500,000 acres of farmland, many of the farms in the Imperial Valley are commercial or industrial farms. This means that the crops have already been contracted to end up at stores like Costco before they're even planted.
“We even got the Romanesco broccoli to be sold in Calexico,” said Wong.
For six years, Calexico had a farmers market that community members benefitted from. When he wasn't securing vendors, Wong was attending community alliance meetings to promote the market and its effort to bring healthy, fresh options to the kitchen table. In 2019, the market shut down after the City of Calexico's Community Services Department Director retired and the department restructured.
Determined to succeed
During his first year at UC Davis, Wong, an anthropology major at the time, struggled as a student and felt ill-prepared to manage the intense coursework that lay ahead. “I just couldn't get the right grades or write good papers,” he said. Before the spring semester of his first year concluded, Wong was academically dismissed from UC Davis.
“There's a joke in my hometown that people say to students who go off to college,” said Wong. “Before you leave, people will say ‘see you next year' because a lot of us don't finish college and return home.”
Returning home was never an option for Wong. He was determined to stay the course, noting that he couldn't return home with student debt and no degree. To get himself back on track, Wong took summer courses at UC Davis and enrolled in remedial English classes at Sacramento City College. In total, he spent an entire school year and two summers making up for his academic shortcomings.
Wong's efforts at Sacramento City College paid off. He was able to reenroll at UC Davis and graduated with a bachelor's degree in Spanish Literature with a minor in Latin American Hemispheric Studies.
Remembering his roots
There's no doubting that the California/Mexican border holds a special place in Wong's heart. His father, of Chinese descent, and his mother met in Mexicali, where Wong's mother is from, and got married against their parents' will.
“They got married in secret and had me in secret because my Chinese grandmother did not approve of the relationship,” said Wong, describing her as “traditional.”
Growing up, Wong remained connected to his Mexican heritage but not so much his Chinese culture. Wong, along with his three younger siblings, are all fluent in Spanish but if you speak to him in Cantonese, like his paternal grandmother does, he'd only be able to make out a few words and phrases.
Wong's father grew up speaking Chinese in his home in Mexicali. When he would attend school in Calexico, however, most students spoke Spanish. The constant shift in language confused Wong's father, causing him to flunk the third grade. To ensure his children didn't experience the same challenges, Wong's father purposefully withheld from teaching Wong or his siblings Cantonese.
Wong's ability to speak Spanish, the language of the community he serves, has empowered him to connect with residents on a deeper level. Of the many things that Wong has accomplished, he is most proud to be giving back to the community that raised him. In 2017, he joined UC ANR as a UC Cooperative Extension community education specialist for Imperial County before becoming a community education supervisor in 2022.
Despite the setbacks that could have easily derailed Wong, he remains steadfast and is always looking for ways to improve his community's health. “I'm eternally grateful for the opportunity to serve my home community as a representative of the UC,” Wong said. “Visiting my old classrooms and teachers to provide their current students with quality educational experiences I may not have had growing up, brings me the utmost joy.”