Longtime farm advisor Churches retires

By Michael Kay, The Union Democrat March 24, 2010 07:45 am

The University of California Agricultural Extension in Calaveras County has undergone administrative changes in the wake of director Ken Churches’ departure.

Churches, Calaveras County’s farm advisor and director of the Calaveras University of California Cooperative Extension for 23 years, retired in February.

Dorothy Smith, director of Amador County’s extension and a nutrition advisor, will take over his administrative work in Calaveras County.
    Scott Oneto, a farm advisor in Calaveras, Amador and El Dorado counties, will assume the agricultural advising portion.
    Churches, 57, plans to move with his wife by the first of next year to a property they bought about eight years ago on Hawaii’s Big Island.
    “We visited there for a Society for Range Management Conference and fell in love with it,” Churches said.
    The couple has worked about a month each year at a ministry there that provides for homeless residents. They will administer the ministry, cooking meals for homeless residents.
    “It’s a big step,” Churches, who was born in Los Angeles County, said of the move.
    When he assumed the role of director in 1987, Churches became only the second person to serve as director of Calaveras County UCCE. He came to the job after serving as a 4-H advisor in Sutter and Yuba counties for two years.
    Churches earned a bachelor’s degree in natural resource management in 1970 and a master’s degree in agriculture education in 1975 at California State Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo.
    Because of the relatively small population of Calaveras County, Churches became a generalist, supporting all aspects of the county’s agriculture industry and the 4-H Youth Development Program.
    When Churches was hired, running cattle on the open range was the county’s primary agricultural business. But in time, landowners in Calaveras and neighboring foothill counties realized their climate and soils could support vineyards, producing grapes for fine wines.
    “When I came here, there was only one tiny winery,” Churches said. “We now have 26 wineries.”
    Churches was involved in the industry from the very beginning.
    “Two grape growers and I got together in a living room and decided we needed a grape growers’ association,” Churches said.
    The group has grown into the successful and active Calaveras Winegrape Alliance.
    For years, Churches collaborated with UC Cooperative Extension offices in neighboring foothill counties to offer an annual winegrape production field day. Ultimately, the once-yearly event did not provide his growers with sufficient exposure to research advances and production experts.
    Nine years ago, Churches began instead offering monthly meetings, year-round, regularly bringing in UC experts to speak to local producers.
    Despite the booming wine industry in Calaveras County, rangeland management is still a significant commercial enterprise.
Churches has been part of a 20-year collaborative range and forage management research project, in which annual vegetation production on rangeland has been monitored throughout the foothill area.
    “The information helps livestock producers manage their land better,” he said. “It helps when we have drought years to document losses for federal support money.”
    In recent years, Churches has also focused attention on developing the Calaveras County agritourism industry.
    He was instrumental in the establishment of new zoning laws regulating agricultural land use and in shaping the agriculture section of the county general plan, work that he calls one of his proudest accomplishments.
    “The county zoning didn’t allow for much more than raising cattle,” Churches said. “If somebody wanted a wine tasting room or other agritourism business, it was very difficult. We developed a zoning ordinance that would allow agritourism to expand. It has helped our ag industry become more sustainable.”
    In the wake of the zoning changes, Calaveras County has become a popular agritourism destination, with numerous wineries, equestrian activities, farm tours and other unusual rural businesses.