A familiar face was missing from Exeter last week. In fact, it was missed by farmers throughout the county.
Rob Milner, an ag inspector with the Tulare County Agriculture Commissioner’s Office for more than 30 years, started his new job in Monterey County this Monday. After working in the Exeter District Office since 1989, Milner’s last day as a Tulare County agriculture inspector was May 23. Milner said it was a difficult decision to leave, but he is looking forward to the challenge of learning about new crops, geography and varities.
“The only way I could better myself was to leave,” Milner said. “But I leave with a heavy heart.”
Milner said he spent much of his last week visiting coworkers, growers and acquaintances he has worked with during his three decades in Tulare County. He said it has been an emotional time in his life as he has watched as an entire generation of farmers passed away, their children grow to take over the family business, and now grandchildren who have returned from college to carrying on the farm.
“I have met a lot of good people and made some great memories,” Milner said. “I only regret that I didn’t take more photos.”
Milner began with the Agriculture Commissioner’s Office as an inspector aid in 1983. He worked in the position on a temporary basis until he became a full-time entomologist aid for the U.S. Department of Agriculture at the UC Lindcove Field Station. In 1985, Milner a fruit inspector for the Porterville/Terra Bella District in Tulare County. Milner moved to the Ag Commissioner’s district office in Exeter in 1989 where he worked as a district supervisor in the Pesticide Division. In his off-duty hours, Milner still gravitated toward the nearby Lindcove Field Station to research incoming varieties through its Citrus Colonial Program. He remembers discussing common citrus varieties such as Fukumodo navels, Cara Caras, Lane Late navels before they became recognized names to consumers.
“When I first started working here no one had heard of pluots,” he said. “Now they are a household name.”
He even remembers a few varieties that never made it to the consumer, such as the Australian finger lime. The cylindrical lime is often slightly curved, like a jalapeno, and is found in pink, brown and green. Milner said became somewhat popular in the 1990s as an ingredient in boutique marmalades and more recently has caught on as a gourmet food. He said the juice vesicles have been called “lime caviar” and are used as a garnish on food or added to recipes because they offer a burst of tangy flavor when they are chewed.
“It never made it down to the consumer but it has really made a splash in the gourmet food industry,” Milner said.
Housed in the side offices of the Exeter Chamber of Commerce building on West Pine Street, Milner said he saw first-hand the effects of the 1990 freeze, not just on the trees but also the local economy. He said the 1990 freeze was a “once in a lifetime event” that is still rippling through the local economy nearly 15 years later. He said entire crops were lost, more than 100,000 trucks per day stopped bringing oranges to and from packing houses and the loss of jobs hurt local towns like Exeter who rely on that money to circulate through retail sales, sales tax, etc.
“You could see the effect on farmers, farmworkers, food closets, packing houses, downtown businesses, everything,” Milner said.
Milner said he was amazed at Exeter’s resiliency in the years that followed, from Seldon Kempton inspiring a new generation of business owners, to the mural program and the chamber’s involvement to attract tourists to a once vacant downtown.
“Watching the town evolve to where it is today has been really interesting,” he said.
Milner said the biggest threat facing local ag is Huanglonbing (HLB). Also known as citrus greening, HLB could dwarf the effects of a freeze or other diseases. He said the Central Valley is one of the last bastions of HLB-free citrus despite numerous finds and resulting quarantines for the pest which carries it, the Asian citrus psyllid.
“The goal is to make this an HLB free area going forward,” Milner said. “Hopefully, Tulare County can do that.”