Richard Smith retires after 37 years of translating science into solutions for vegetable growers


By: Pam Kan-Rice

For four decades, when a new plant disease infects fields of lettuce or a new regulation is issued for agriculture, vegetable farmers across the state have turned to Richard Smith, the University of California Cooperative Extension vegetable crops advisor, for answers. After 37 years of service with UCCE, Smith retired on Jan. 4.

“The whole industry has been dreading Richard’s retirement!” exclaimed Jennifer Clarke, executive director of the California Leafy Greens Research Program. “Richard is a wealth of knowledge and has a great ability to translate science into real-world practical solutions.”

In the past few years, the leafy greens industry has lost millions of dollars of crops due to infections of impatiens necrotic spot virus (INSV) and Pythium wilt. Smith is among the researchers investigating the diseases.

“Richard has conducted important variety trials and led efforts in identifying the ‘top 10’ weed hosts for INSV and strategies to reduce the wintertime ‘green bridge’ for this virus,” Clarke said.  

Smith also has kept policymakers informed of the latest research. In 2021, he testified before the Assembly Committee on Agriculture about leafy green plant diseases. 

A legacy of practical advice, service to community

By serving on numerous grower and county committees and working directly with growers, Smith has built a reputation for understanding growers’ needs and developing practical solutions. He has found it rewarding to see his research results used. 

“The research that I have conducted with my collaborators has helped the water board to better fit their regulations to the reality of farming and to minimize the economic constraints,” Smith said.

Smith and his colleague Michael Cahn, UCCE irrigation and water resources advisor, also have become trusted and respected voices when discussing AgOrder 4.0 with the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, according to Clarke. AgOrder 4.0 calls for farmers to reduce the amount of fertilizer they apply to crops. 

Field trials conducted by Smith and Cahn showed growers they could use nitrogen from high nitrate wells toward meeting a crop’s nutritional needs. 

“Richard has also done important research to develop nitrogen removal coefficients for AgOrder 4.0,” Clarke said. “Recently he and Eric Brennan of USDA-ARS (Agricultural Research Service) looked at cover crops and identified a system to predict shoot biomass and allow for nitrogen scavenging credits. His work has been pivotal in helping growers comply with AgOrder 4.0 in a cost-effective and realistic manner.”  

Growers also use his research to manage cadmium, a heavy metal that is naturally present in soils. 

“He led the effort to help growers find a best management practice that reduces cadmium uptake in various crops,” Clarke said. “The Central Coast has areas of productive agricultural land where there are naturally occurring shale deposits. The ability to amend soil to reduce plant uptake of this heavy metal has allowed these important production areas to continue to farm nutritious vegetables.”

‘Never had a bad day as a farm advisor’

Growing up in Watsonville, Smith began working at a young age in agriculture for summer jobs.

“I was in 4-H and got to know ag advisors and was always impressed by them,” Smith said. “I was fortunate to be able to work as an advisor for my career. I never had a bad day as a farm advisor – it was very satisfying working with growers and helping them with their issues.” 

Smith joined UC Cooperative Extension as a farm advisor intern in San Diego County and San Joaquin County in 1985 after earning his master’s degree in agronomy from UC Davis. In 1986, he moved to the Central Valley to serve as an interim farm advisor for San Joaquin County, then became a vegetable crops farm advisor for Stanislaus County in 1987. 

In 1989, Smith moved to the Central Coast to serve as UCCE small farms advisor for San Benito, Monterey and Santa Cruz counties. In 1999, he transitioned to UCCE vegetable crops and weed science farm advisor for those three counties, where he served for the rest of his career.

Mentoring the next generation of scientists

“Richard was my mentor, principal investigator on my first collaborative study at ANR, speaker at several of my extension events, and a dear colleague,” said Surendra Dara, former UCCE entomology and biologicals advisor and now director of Oregon State University’s North Willamette Research & Extension Center and professor of horticulture. “He is very kind, friendly, and most importantly has a good sense of humor. He is well-regarded both by his peers and stakeholders.”

Smith has been active in professional organizations, regularly attending the annual meetings of the American Society for Horticulture Science and the American Society of Agronomy. He served as president of the California Chapter of the American Society of Agronomy in 2014 and served on the board of the California Weed Science Society, which granted him the Award of Excellence in 2005 and an honorary membership in 2020.

As a public service, Smith served on the board of the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association, and taught classes and conducted outreach to their Spanish-speaking clientele. He was a regular guest speaker for vegetable crop and weed science classes at CSU Fresno, CSU Monterey Bay, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Hartnell Community College and Cabrillo Community College. 

As he winds down his career, Smith has been mentoring new UCCE farm advisors and scientists who have joined USDA-Agricultural Research Service in Salinas and California State University, Monterey Bay, acquainting them with local issues.

“Richard’s leadership and mentorship has been critical in the development of my career as a new researcher at USDA-ARS in Salinas,” said Daniel K. Hasegawa, research entomologist in USDA-ARS’s Crop Improvement and Protection Research Unit. “Richard has taught me so much about agricultural practices in the Salinas Valley and has connected me with growers and pest control advisers, which has enhanced the impact of my own research, which includes projects addressing thrips and INSV.” 

Smith, who has been granted emeritus status by UC Agriculture and Natural Resources, plans to complete nitrogen research projects that are underway.