California is the nation’s number one agricultural producer; more than 400 commodities are grown in the Golden State. Per the California Department of Food and Agriculture website, “…Over a third of the country’s vegetables and two-thirds of the country’s fruits and nuts are grown in California.” Helping fuel the economic growth in the agricultural sector has been the University of California (UC) and its Cooperative Extension Service (UCCE/Agriculture and Natural Resources Division), which has operated in the state’s counties for more than 100 years.

If you’re a farmer, you have likely benefited from UCCE’s practical research. Or maybe you’ve called a Master Gardener helpline for advice on integrated pest management, or enrolled your child in a 4-H program…all of which are services provided by your local UCCE Office.


There’s a Long History Here…and It May Help Today’s Researchers

Imagine more than 100 years of research and crop reports, records and photographs documenting the development of California agriculture and the state’s communities. What might researchers be able to learn about how to respond to current and future challenges from the historical record?

The possibilities seem endless.

Recognizing the value of the historical records located in dozens of UCCE county offices, UC Merced Library and UC ANR entered into an agreement in 2016 to start a project to archive, preserve and provide access to UCCE’s historic records. The pilot counties for the project are Merced County, Humboldt County (location of the first UCCE Office) and Ventura County. The growing UCCE Archive at UC Merced has been named California Agriculture Resources Archive (CARA)…and the first documents are now available online.

Working with county offices, the UC Merced team has “uncovered hundreds of linear feet of materials on crop research, agricultural production, technology, land use, socioeconomic development, 4-H and youth development, among other subjects.” These materials offer researchers a critical opportunity to assess the changes in California’s communities and agricultural sector over the past century.

Lisa Vallen. Credit: UC Merced

I recently spoke with Lisa Vallen, who is the archivist for this innovative project. Lisa is the UC Cooperative Extension Project Archivist at UC Merced Library, where she works to preserve, organize and provide access to records of enduring value on California agriculture. Lisa has prior experience in archival arrangement and description at the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and preservation and collections care with the Illinois History and Lincoln Collection. She received her MSLIS from University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and her BA from Lake Forest College.


What’s the status of the project?

We are almost finished scanning Merced County’s annual reports from 1917 to the late 1950s/early 1960s. This includes statistical and narrative reports. These reports provide a snapshot of the weekly and monthly work of each farm advisor. We’re doing this with funding we received from a National Historical Publications & Records Commission (NHPRC) grant. We hope to have everything except for the Merced annual reports uploaded in Calisphere by the holidays…this represents thousands of pages of documents.

I’ve also been working on developing collection guides (finding aids), which are documents that identify items of interest, provide a history of the collection, information about the scope and content of the material archived, dates, and how the archives are arranged. These are located on the Online Archive of California, a digital portal to thousands of collections. There are also UCCE records on the Hathi Trust Digital Library.

For digitization, Ventura County is scanned and has moved into post-processing, which takes time to create searchable pdfs, while we are in the process of finishing scanning Humboldt County and Santa Barbara County collections.  We are almost finished with the archival processing of Madera County and expect to start archival processing for Tulare in 2019.

Editor’s Note: Calisphere is a project of UC’s Libraries and was developed/is maintained by the California Digital Library. Calisphere provides free access to “unique and historically important artifacts for research, teaching, and curious exploration.” The site contains more than one million “photographs, documents, letters, artwork, diaries, oral histories, films, advertisements, musical recordings, and more.” Collections on Calisphere have been digitized by all 10 UC campuses and other libraries, archives and museums from around the state. Here are the links to UCCE Archive OAC (where the collection guides are) and Calisphere (where the digitized items are) pages.


What challenges have you faced in developing this archive?

Both Ventura and Merced counties have large historic photograph collections (we’ve uploaded more than 1,000 photos to date). This has presented a particular challenge, because most of the photographs had nitrate-negatives, which are highly flammable. Additional steps must be taken in handling these materials in a safe manner. In this case, we had to conduct a burn test on the photo negatives.


“I took the margins from negatives that I suspected to be nitrate negatives and we worked with our Environmental Hazard and Safety Office to find a lab to perform our burn test. Nitrate based film will burn quickly and will also burn down while acetate based film will only burn across the top, it will not burn down. You cannot determine nitrate vs acetate film by eye. It can only be determined by destructive tests, of which the burn test is the easiest to perform.

 I would caution the public not to perform this at home – nitrate film fires are self-sustaining – once it ignites you must wait for it to burn itself out and it can even burn under water. We worked with a vendor to digitize 995 still photograph nitrate negatives, 595 from Ventura and 400 from Merced.”






You’ve also produced some interesting videos…can you tell us about those?

“The inspiration behind the videos is to explain how to access the archived material. The archive contains great information and I’m starting to educate people about how to use and search UC Cooperative Extension archival material online. Part of the outreach work will be to explain to researchers why they might want to access these materials. There are a wide variety of research topics that could be answered with this archive. And I’ll really start pushing it in 2019 as we get more material posted.”




What’s been the most interesting aspect of the work?

I’m enjoying the work and the opportunity to build something from scratch. I’m getting to travel to different counties in California, which has been interesting. I’m learning about the history of California through the lens of agriculture…and helping others access this vibrant history. It’s rewarding and important.

And here’s a fun comparison: We take items like this:



And make them look like this!





Editor’s Note: If you’re interested in learning more about the Archive, you can reach Lisa directly via email at

The Cooperative Extension Service (CE) was created by Congress through the Smith-Lever Act in 1914. CE is a national network of scientists, researchers and educators who are affiliated with land-grant institutions. They work in communities to conduct and apply research that addresses a broad range of issues across agriculture, natural resources, human nutrition and health, and youth, family and community development. In California, Cooperative Extension (UCCE) is operated by the University of California’s division of Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR). This is a statewide network connecting the people of California to the University.

UC ANR has 1,000 researchers and UC faculty at several campuses, including Berkeley, Davis, Riverside and Merced. UCCE operates in each of the state’s 58 counties, and operates 9 research stations spanning the geographic and climatic diversity of the state, numerous statewide programs and 2 institutes. The first UCCE Office in California opened in 1913 in Humboldt County