Jesus Castillo, originally from Jalisco Mexico, began working with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the Cachuma Resource Conservation District (RCD) in 2003 at a 2-hour workshop on general conservation and farming practices. He attended this event at the request of the landowner from whom he and several other growers rent. Since this time, Jesus has continued to work with the NRCS and RCD field office team to become a conservation leader in Santa Maria's population of minority strawberry and tomatillo producers.
One of the first lessons that Jesus learned was that applying more nitrogen does not automatically lead to bigger, better strawberries. When nitrogen levels are already optimal, application of excess nitrogen can damage crops and pollute surface waters. Therefore, Jesus used Nitrate Quick-Tests provided by the field office team to determine the actual nitrogen level in his soils. Further soil testing and interpretative assistance by the field office team revealed to Jesus that more calcium and less nitrogen made sense for his land. Using this type of personalized nutrient management analysis is saving Jesus considerably on the cost of fertilizers, reducing nutrients in groundwater, and yielding healthier plants with tastier berries.
Reducing runoff is a big issue for strawberry growers due to the placement of large plastic sheets over soil beds. The strawberry seeds are planted in holes poked through these sheets, which are sometimes referred to as "plastic mulch" because they act to reduce weed competition much like mulch from organic sources. Then, sprinkler irrigation is normally used during the first month followed by drip irrigation for the remainder of the season. During that first month, however, runoff from sprinkler irrigation can be excessive as large volumes of water travel down plastic-covered slopes. The water may then concentrate fertilizers and pesticides into small collection points that enter surface and ground water supplies. Jesus contemplated this situation and implemented three practical solutions. First, he decided to use only drip irrigation, and then worked with the field office team to optimize his irrigation hardware and devise a plan for uniform application. Secondly, he minimized the slope of the land. Field office technicians surveyed his field and consulted with Jesus on how to level the land, and where to strategically place ditches to drain surface water that accumulates after rain. Finally, in line with recommendations from the field office, he added grass strips between the strawberry beds and on the ditches to reduce runoff velocity and thereby slow soil erosion.
When Jesus first came to the NRCS and Cachuma RCD and became enthused about conservation practices, he expressed: "I want to do it right. I want to make sure the water doesn't leave my land to the neighbor." This level of caring and comittment is admirable. Monica Barricarte, RCD Water Management Specialist notes, "We make suggestions and everyone listens, but ultimately it's up to them how much of it they do. Jesus did it all." Moreover, Jesus hosted workshops for irrigation and nutrient management in order to help others experience similiar benefits, namely improved water quality, water conservation, reduction of nutrient levels in groundwater, and reduced soil erosion. Jesus' example and efforts are a great help to individual farmers seeking to improve their production, and benefit the region as a whole through sustainable use of its natural resources.