A lifeline to Fresno's Southeast Asian farmers, Richard Molinar retired in June.
UC Cooperative Extension advisor Richard Molinar, whose career has been focused on helping small family farmers succeed, retired in June from what he calls his “dream job.”
As a young community college teacher in his native Bakersfield, Molinar first learned about the mission and role of UC Cooperative Extension in the agricultural industry. He immediately knew what he wanted to do with his life and never let go of his dream.
Molinar had earned a bachelor’s degree in crop science at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, and then volunteered in rural Honduras with the Peace Corps for two years helping farmers improve practices and techniques.
“This had a huge impact on my life,” Molinar said. “That’s when it all started. I loved helping people.”
He returned to the United States and, after a stint with a chemical company, began teaching classes in crop science, soils, vegetable crops, beekeeping and organic gardening at Bakersfield Community College. With advice from UC Cooperative Extension colleagues, he set his sights on a career as a farm advisor.
Molinar returned to school for a master’s degree while working for a weed abatement firm in Bakersfield. He never tired of his UCCE job search and in 1986 was selected to be the environmental horticulture advisor for UC Cooperative Extension in Alameda County. Nine years later he transferred to Fresno County.
“This has been a job I have thoroughly enjoyed,” Molinar said. “I’ve been able to work out in the field, directly with farmers and live in Reedley, the ‘fruit capital of the world.”
Throughout his tenure in Fresno, a large fraction of his time and efforts were devoted to helping the county’s 1,300 Southeast Asian refugee farmers, a job that was facilitated with the language and culture skills of his assistant Michael Yang, an immigrant himself from Laos.
Molinar has accumulated a litany of awards during this 27-year UCCE career for “meritorious service,” “distinguished service,” “lifetime achievement,” “IPM innovator,” and “leadership,” but the honor he most cherishes, he said, was being presented a Hmong name by the Hmong Farmers of Fresno in 2011.
Molinar’s Hmong name is Vam Meej, which means “giving prosperity.”
Among Molinar’s first goals in working with Southeast Asian farmers was teaching them modern production practices that hadn’t been used in their homelands, such as pest control using integrated pest management techniques. IPM involves nurturing beneficial insects.
“When we introduced good bugs and bad bugs, they all laughed at us,” Molinar said. “They thought all bugs were bad. We’ve been teaching about this concept for years now and we’re not laughed at any more.”
Molinar has helped Southeast Asian farmers navigate rules and regulations established by government agencies, such as the San Joaquin Valley Air Quality District and the California Department of Occupational Health and Safety Administration.
For example, Molinar and Yang helped farmer Zia Thea Xiong, a Southeast Asian immigrant and father of 12, when Cal OSHA issued a $750 citation for insufficient toilet facilities. Molinar and Yang took pictures at the farm and accompanied Xiong to Sacramento to appeal Xiong’s citation, which was reversed.
“We’ve helped farmers comply with workers’ compensation insurance, the injury and illness prevention training plan, and acquiring the 16 or so different posters they have to display,” Molinar said.
He also worked with Southeast Asian farmers to open new markets for their produce, taking them on market tours in San Francisco and Los Angeles. More recently, he has been collaborating with other agencies to pave the way for placing Southeast Asian farmer-grown vegetables into upscale markets like Whole Foods.
In recent years, food safety has been an increasingly important arena for extension activities with small-scale producers. In this case, the farmers do not have to cope with government regulation, but with retail and wholesale fruit and vegetable outlets that require growers to provide written food safety plans. With the director of the small farm program, Molinar developed a template the farmers can use to write a comprehensive plan by simply filling in information specific to their operations.
Molinar has maintained a one-acre demonstration and research plot at the UC Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center since 1995, where he conducted cherry tomato and mini watermelon variety trials, research projects comparing irrigation techniques, and experiments involving integrated pest management of weeds, insects and vegetable diseases. Crops that were grown for demonstration or research purposes over the years were nopales (cactus pads), capers, jujube trees, a wide variety of Southeast Asian vegetables and 50 kinds of Hmong medicinal herbs. The herbs, many which had not been documented as having been grown in California before, were submitted to the UC Herbarium at UC Davis to be pressed, dried and archived.
In the early 2000s, the Molinar and Yang transitioned the one-acre research and demonstration plot to organic production. Molinar also worked with the Kearney research advisory committee to set aside 10 acres at the center for larger organic studies.
Molinar has reached out to Hispanic and African American and organic small scale farmers in Fresno. Every other year he teamed up with Manuel Jimenez, UCCE advisor in Tulare County, to offer a “Conferencia para agricultores,” a conference on agricultural production conducted entirely in Spanish. He gave presentations at the Fresno farm of Will Scott, a leader in the African-American Farmers of California.
Though he retires June 30, with emeritus status, he said, he will continue to serve the family farmers who have been his clientele in Fresno County. He is also interested in taking up some small-scale farming himself. An Allis Chalmers garden tractor is already parked in the Molinar backyard and he is negotiating with landowners to secure a half-acre to one-acre site where he can grow food to be direct marketed to people in the Reedley community.
Richard Molinar, left, with Fresno farmer Will Scott.