Manuel Jimenez grew up in the fields of the Central Valley. As a child he worked alongside his parents picking olives in Lindsay, oranges in Woodlake, cherries in San Jose, peaches in Yuba and grapes in Fresno before drying and rolling them into raisins each season.
“We worked in the fields with our parents all day,” he said. “People today see it as hard work, but it was a chance to keep our family together. We saw it as time well spent with each other.”
He and his eight siblings learned to enjoy work, to cherish time with their family and to appreciate the bountiful harvest provided California agriculture.
“We missed a lot of school but we got to spend more time with our families and got an education in agriculture,” he said.
Today Manuel and his wife Olga are trying to use community based agriculture to pass on those lessons to a new generation, a generation whose life experience is often confined to a television, a laptop or a smartphone.
“Most kids today don’t work so they don’t learn how to take direction or to work with others,” Manuel said. “I teachers the kids about responsibility and volunteerism and how to get along. Those all great things we want to see in our kids and putting them in the garden is a way to make it grow inside them.”A farm advisor for the University of California Cooperative Extension, Manuel said his family’s journey in the fields prepared him better for his career than anything he could have learned from a book. During his 32 years with UCCE, Manuel began helping southeast Asian families learn to grow crops in the hot climate of Central California.
“Why can’t we do that in Woodlake?” Olga asked her husband.
His answer was “we can,” through a multi-pronged partnership between a newly-formed non-profit, the City of Woodlake and donations from small farms and nurseries in the area. In the early 1990s, Manuel and Olga began selling vegetables from their garden as a fund-raiser for the project. In 1999, the Woodlake Valley Chamber of Commerce received a tree grant to beautify Woodlake which led to the formation of the Woodlake Pride, Inc. a non-profit that would grow to handle funds and tax exempt donations for the Botanical Garden.
“The money was originally planned for shade trees but we wanted to do something more for the community,” Olga said.
In 2003, the City of Woodlake purchased 13 acres of the old Visalia Electric right-of-way away along a 1-mile stretch on the northern bank of Bravo Lake. Manuel, Olga and hundreds of Woodlake children have transformed the hard clay soil of an abandoned ditch into a vibrant kaleidoscope of agriculture.
“It’s been really rewarding to see this area develop from nothing to a permanent garden,” Olga said.
Olga said on average she works at the garden three times per week year round with harvesting in the spring and fall, pruning in the winter and maintenance and weeding during the summer.
“Olga is the foundation of the project,” Manuel said. “She is the one putting most of her time and energy into the garden and getting the kids to volunteer.”
Olga said her workforce started as middle schoolers who knew her own children. Then band students started getting involved, followed by certain clubs at the high school campus and finally anyone looking to satisfy the 85 hours of community service required to graduate from Woodlake High School.
“We have had some students start as fourth graders and volunteer all the way through high school,” Olga said.
In some cases, Olga has seen rival gang members, bullies and their targets all come together to work side by side at the garden.
“It’s a really relaxed environment and working on the garden helps them work things out,” she said. “I’ve heard kids say, ‘I won’t work with him because he used to bully me,’ or ‘he was in a gang or group,’” she said. “I tell them to let it go and many times they do.”
Bravo Lake Garden is the first agricultural botanical garden in California. The facility includes a tropical garden; a citrus orchard; a grape vineyard; a collection of peaches, plums, and nectarines; and several vegetable gardens.
If you’ve never seen it first hand, this Saturday is your chance to see the beauty, smell the blooms, pick the bounty and even taste the berries. The Botanical Garden will play host to its annual Blueberry, Blackberry and Strawberry Tasting Day on Saturday, June 8. The tasting will begin at 8 a.m. and end at noon at Bravo Lake Botanical Garden, located along Naranjo Boulevard on the north side of Bravo Lake in Woodlake. Manuel said there will be a dozen varieties of blueberries, a half dozen blackberry varities, three types of raspberries and several varieties of strawberries.
“Most of the berries people will taste are grown right here at the garden,” said Manuel, who is retiring from the University of California Cooperative Extension at the end of this month. “People will even be able to pick some right off the vines and bushes.”
Manuel has spent half of his 33-years as a farm advisor working with specialty berries. He has learned first-hand from growers of cooler climates the secrets to producing top-notch blueberries and blackberries. Participants in this weekend’s tasting will savor the best commercial and home garden berry varieties California has to offer and are encouraged to bring their children to taste them straight from the garden. The tasting day costs $5 per adult. Children 5 years old and younger are free.
“All of the money goes back into the garden for supplies and materials,” Manuel said. “We are also selling some blueberry bushes to raise money.”
The event is sponsored by the University of California Cooperative Extension, the University of California Small Farm Program and Woodlake Pride Inc., the non-profit organization which tends to the garden. In addition to the sponsoring organizations, several other groups will be providing educational information, including the University of California Tulare/Kings County Master Gardeners, the University of California Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program, the University of California Extension Center, the USDA Farm Service Agency and Natural Resource Conservation Service, Proteus Inc., and others. Nutrition education information will be handed out by several organizations. While at the gardens, Olga reminds visitors to walk around and see the rose gardens which contain 120 verities and more than 1,600 plants. Olga and her volunteers also recently planted sunflowers which she hopes will be the treat of the day as they will be “smiling for everyone.”
“This is a wonderful place to read and take a deep breath,” she said. “It is so peaceful here. When your eyes are tired of reading, you can look up and see the beauty all around you. I hope many people will come and enjoy like we do.”
Bravo Lake Botanical Garden is located at 200 E. Naranjo Blvd. in Woodlake. For questions, call Manuel Jimenez at 559-280-2483 or Olga Jimenez at 559-564-3607.