Peter Nelson named Agriculturist of the Year

Peter Nelson named Agriculturist of the Year

Coachella Valley farmer honored by California Women for Agriculture

Denise Goolsby

The Desert Sun

Longtime Coachella Valley farmer and citrus grower Peter Nelson was named Agriculturist of the Year by the local chapter of California Women for Agriculture.

CWA’s annual “Farm to Fork” dinner—which featured locally grown salad, including Desert Mist Farms romaine ribs, date Carpaccio, charred Prime Time peppers with citrus vinaigrette – and a deconstructed lemon tart with desert lemon curd – is a celebration of the valley’s agriculture community and the desert’s bounty.

Wong Farms tomatoes and Coachella Valley green beans accompanied the main course of forest mushroom-stuffed chicken.  Table favors included jars of homemade lemon marmalade from Coachella Valley FFA and tangerine pistachio biscotti made by the Desert Sandblasters 4-H Club, boxes of Coachella Valley dates, courtesy of the California Date Commission and beautiful flower centerpieces made by members of the Indio FFA Chapter.

Lemons and grapefruit from Wonderful Citrus decorated a farmsy-themed table sitting below a sign that read, “Eating if an Agricultural Act.”  American AgCredit provided the wine.

The program was emceed by CWA Coachella Valley Chapter co-president Ellen Way, who recognized previous Agriculturists of the Year recipients in attendance, including historian Pat Laflin, Desert Mist Farms general manager Adrian Zendajas, Desert Mist Farms president Jeff Percy and Peter Rabbit arms President/CEO John Powell Jr.

“George Washington once said that, ‘Agriculture is the most helpful, most useful and most noble employment of man,’ “Way said.  “Tonight, we’re proud to honor one such nobleman…Peter Nelson.”

Nelson, who was working with grape crews for Superior Farms in Bakersfield, moved to the desert with the company and wife Darlene in 1987.  After Superior was sold to Sunworld, he became general manager for Jack and Patricia Crocker’s farm in Coachella, where he learned to farm dates “with some excellent advice from (longtime date growers) the Laflins and Jensens.”  The Crockers also farmed citrus and grapes.

It was during this time that longtime valley water rights champion Lowell Weeks recruited Peter for consideration to replace a retiring Dorothy Nichols as a Coachella Valley Water District board member.  Weeks served as general manager-chief engineer of CVWD from 1956 to 1986, overseeing dramatic change from predominately an agricultural irrigation agency serving farms in the lower valley to a multifaceted water-related services district – domestic water, sanitation and recycled water – serving much of the Coachella Valley.

Nelson was appointed as a CVWD board director in June 2000 and has been there ever since, serving six years as president.

Nelson, who served for 14 years on the Salton Sea Authority and is currently a member of the Colorado River Board and the California Farm Water Coalition, now farms lemons at Thermal Plaza Nursery and property in the Imperial Valley that is now Wonderful Citrus.

Powell, who serves as president of the board of the water district, introduced his colleague and longtime friend praising the work Nelson has done protecting the valley’s imported water supply.

“Peter is fighting for the rights of the water in the Coachella Valley that benefits everybody in the valley,” Powell said.  “It is the lifeblood – not just farming, but the entire lifeblood of this valley.  If we don’t fight for it, someone is going to take it away from us.  This is something that’s been going on for 100 years – so we’re just the latest in a long string of folks that are fighting for the water…It’s a complicated time, there’s not enough to go around, so thank you, Peter, for fighting for our water.”

Nelson thanked Powell and commended the students on their achievements.

“I know all of you scholarship recipients are thinking that you want to go to school, you want to get A’s, well, I look at my life kind of by ‘F’s,’”, Nelson said as the audience broke out in laughter.  “Not failures – but I think in terms of faith, family, farm and friends.”

Nelson, who followed his father into farming, said his dad first came to the Coachella Valley in 1972 “to see what the Coachella Valley was doing about water and what they were doing with the drip irrigation, so he came down, he learned quite a bit, he went back up north and implemented a lot of practices he heard about and saw here in the Coachella Valley.”

He wrapped up by saying, “I pray that you have great crops, great yields and that your thirst is quenched,” the latter a nod to the Biblical story of Jesus meeting a Samaritan woman at a water well.

Funding Future Farmers

Agricultural education is one of CWA’s top priorities.  “If we want the United States to continue to feed itself and the world, we must invest in education and inspiring future generations of farmers,” said Stephanie Sobotka, co-president of the Coachella Valley Chapter of California Women for Agriculture.

Five local high school seniors were awards CWA scholarships — $3,000 each renewable each year of college with bonuses for good grades – funding that will help these students further their education in the field of agriculture.

Dante Calderon, La Quinta High School, has been a member of Desert Sandblasters 4-H Club and currently serves as the club’s president.  Dante, who was accepted into Chico State University, plans to enter school as a crops/horticulture/land management major.  Dante also receive a $500 4-H scholarship.

Aleena Duran, Indio High School, is planning to attend Cal Poly Pomona with the goal of becoming an Ag teacher.  She will receive the State FFA Degree – only three percent of the 76,000 California FFA members achieve this highest of FFA degrees.

Alexander Gallardo, Indio High School, has served as Indio Chapter FFA chapter reporter, vice president and chair.  Alexander has earned the State FFA degree and has received numerous leadership, showmanship and landscape contest awards.  He plans to attend Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and major in Ag Science with the goal of becoming an Ag instructor.  Alexander also received a $2,500 American AgCredit scholarship.

Lilliana Lopez, Indio High School, served as an Indio Chapter FFA officer and has been accepted into Fresno State, where she plans to pursue a degree in animal science/livestock management.  She wanted to become an Ag teacher and “help students who are truly interested in the future of agriculture.”  Lillian was also awarded the inaugural Barbara W. Allison Scholarship in remembrance of Barbara “Bobbie” Allison, one of the founders of CWA.

Alexander Paz, Indio High School, served as treasurer and barn manager for the Indio FFA Chapter.  He plans to become a plant or crop manager.

Riverside County Supervisor, John Benoit and Indio Mayor Glenn Miller – who was also representing the office of State Sen. Jeff Stone – presented certificates to each of the students.

La Quinta High School graduate Cassie Bullock, who has been a recipient of a CWA scholarship since 2009 – she graduated with a plant science degree and a minor in chemistry from Cal Poly Pomona and is now in a doctoral program at UC Davis – took to the podium and wished the students luck in their studies.

“When I was in high school, I had no idea what an impact this scholarship would have on my career and who I am today,” Bullock said.  “When I started college, my mom lost her job and she was in no position to help me financially, so this scholarship really helped me get through college and also, it acted kind of like a parent in a way…you get bonuses for getting good grades…It’s a huge incentive to do really well in school and it also boosted my confidence in myself.”

Before Way introduced Coachella Valley High School Ag instructor Vanessa Encinias, who would give an update on the school’s Agriculture & Natural Resources Academy, she lauded long-time CWA member and supporter Margit Chiriaco-Rusche for “leading the charge” to rebuild the school’s farm.

“I know there’s a lot of people in the room who worked on that farm as students and loved that program…and the farm needs our help,” Way said.

“We have been in the process of a huge revitalization of the ag academy at CVHS campus,” Encinias said.  “The district office has recently approved a half million dollars to begin the process of cleaning that facility up, getting the architectural plans approved by the city, moving forward.  We’re looking at a new greenhouse, a new animal husbandry unit, new curriculum….really giving these kids the agriculture, natural resources education that they deserve.”

“The goal of the program is not just the facilities – it’s also taking that program and turning it into a state-of-the-art model that can be used across the state and hopefully nationwide,” Encinias said.

For more information about the Ag program at Coachella Valley High, or to donate toward the farm revitalization efforts, call (760) 399-5137 and reference the ANR Academy when calling.