Farm Advisor Profile

Kurt Hembree was one of the few remaining weed scientists left in UC Cooperative Extension before he retired in July 2020 (photo courtesy K. Hembree.)

Growing up in Sonoma County, Kurt Hembree, M.S., weed management farm advisor with UCCE Fresno County, was surrounded by berries, apples, plums and other stone fruit. Though his father had grown up on a farm in Illinois, he moved out to California to leave the farm life and pursue a career in civil engineering, which had him dealing with large wells and developed systems in both rural and urban settings.

But Hembree grew up to be interested in tree farming.

“We didn’t have any annual crops. Just all trees, and not even vines at the time,” said Hembree.

Though his initial intrigue was for animal science rather than plant science, Hembree made the switch and ventured south from Sonoma County to California State University, Fresno, where he received a bachelor’s degree in plant science, and then his master’s in plant protection. It was in one of his earliest courses that he studied with weed scientist Dr. Gary L. Ritenour and found himself on a path that would shape his career in research and agriculture.

“I was super excited about it. It was something completely different that I’d never been exposed to,” recalled Hembree.


Shifts in Industry

It’s been nearly 35 years since Hembree began as a staff research associate for the Fresno County extension, and over 25 years since he became a farm advisor for the same county. He’s had a hand in developing new herbicide registrations and helped discover California’s glyphosate-resistant horseweed and hairy fleabane. It has been over the last 20 years of his career that Hembree has seen some dramatic shifts in the industry.

The biggest change for him is the move from annual cropping systems to trees and vineyards.

“Geographically, when you look at it, you don’t even see the same structures because it’s all trees,” said Hembree. “I could drive across from Fresno all the way to the west side, and once you got out of the [areas with vines], all of a sudden it was all open agronomic ground and vegetables. It’s not like that anymore.”

The changes in how crops are grown is a close second, followed by the staggering number of increased tree nut acreage every year.

As the growing environments change, Hembree has noticed growers and PCAs have become more progressive in their thinking, setting the bar much higher for everyone else.

“We’ve got some of the top-notch people, probably in the world,” said Hembree. “It’s very rare that we get simple questions anymore. I think it’s awesome.”


Retirement Leaves a Hole

Hembree—one of the few remaining weed scientists in Cooperative Extension—retired in July 2020. State budget cuts have left the future of Hembree’s farm advisor position in limbo with the very real possibility of the position going permanently unfilled. Over the last few months, Hembree and others have been working to put together a position proposal that could support a regional person covering the whole of the southern San Joaquin Valley.

For now, whom should growers contact regarding weed management?

“That’s something we’re trying to work out now,” said Hembree. “Hopefully, some of our orchard and nut crop advisors will move in that direction a bit. I’ve been working with them closely, so at least they can address some of the basic issues.”

While the UC system contains a healthy number of entomologists and plant pathologists, it’s the opposite for weed scientists. This is problematic because—particularly for nut crops—there are still some majorly resistant weed species, such as fleabanes, that need to be more consistently controlled. Weed scientists receive a lot of calls, and there is still a lot of work to be done in this area of orchard management.

Without farm advisors specializing in weed management, growers will either be knocking down the last weed scientist’s door, or resources will move into the private sector. The former is less than ideal, as that plate is full with other research and extension obligations. But having research move into the private sector can leave space for potential conflicts of interest.

“[These things] are why I think it’s really critical that this is a must-fill position from my perspective,” said Hembree. “Talking to industry folks, particularly in the nut crop business, they really need somebody that’s a full position, so we’re going to push for that. We’ve got a lot of industry support to help us.”

Many companies have field stations and conduct their own research. County agricultural commissioners also conduct education outreach. This trend is expected to grow, and it ultimately comes down to whether or not growers will turn to the companies from whom they purchase products for the information needed on the best ways to manage their orchards.

“We’ve always been unbiased and tried to represent that. But this,” said Hembree about research moving into the private sector, “might change that a little bit. [Growers] just have to have confidence that the results and efforts they’re putting forth are straightforward.”

Hembree may have retired, but he is hanging around the field for a little bit. The pandemic forced him to delay some of his plans, so he will likely be available for a couple of months following retirement to address any questions. This may even include encouraging growers to take a closer look at their weed management practices.

Over the last 10 to 15 years, Hembree has encountered many situations involving spraying modifications, particularly with ground spray equipment, which can create problems. He suggested growers should have equipment dedicate to weed sprays, along with dedicating applicators that are well-trained and well-versed in why it’s important to have herbicides properly applied. It cuts down on potential losses, problems, litigations and other less-than-favorable outcomes.

“The more we can be on the same page with that, it really does make everybody happier,” he said.

As Hembree wraps up his decades with UCCE, he’s in the process of looking for his new home out of state and closer to family. With some acreage already awaiting his arrival, Hembree has some ideas for what comes next in retirement.

“I might buy myself a tractor and some equipment and just do some small farming or something. You just never know.”