Lizbeth Cordova grew up exploring vineyards near her home in Greenfield — a town of about 18,000 in Monterey County — frequently in search of the ripest grapes. Now, the Fresno State senior plant science student is looking to shift her gaze below the vines.
Cordova is one of the Plant Science Department’s most accomplished students as a member of its soil judging team, and she recently was one of four students nationally selected as Greenfield Scholars by the American Society of Agronomy.
Working with wine grapes is a family tradition. Growing up, her love for agriculture was influenced by her parents as she watched them tend to the vineyards of Smith and Hook Winery since the 1990s in the heart of the Salinas Valley. The third-generation farmer’s family came from Guanajuato, Mexico, where her grandparents, Carmelo and Aurora Pacheco, grew row crops commercially.
Her father, Saul Cordova, now works as a vineyard supervisor for Smith and Hook Winery, and her mother, Marisol Pacheco, is a farmworker. From a young age, Lizbeth Cordova expressed interest in wine grapes, and she has worked on weekends and in the summer the past six years in various vineyard management and harvest roles.
She would like to take the family tradition to the next step, as she wants to develop a more productive and full-bodied grape. With her grasp on soil science, Cordova plans on applying that knowledge to the vineyard.
She has been actively involved on campus, staying busy between classes by participating in both the plant science and irrigation club. One of her most rewarding campus commitments is being a member of the soil judging team, she said, because of the hands-on learning experiences and opportunity to bond with teammates.
Through regular meetings, practices and competitions, club members learn from industry professionals and faculty to analyze soil layers and their ability to transmit and retain water, as well as support roots.
“I really enjoy going into the pits to conduct soil tests to examine the pH and diagnostic horizons,” Cordova said. “Analyzing soil is a great skill to have in the winegrape industry, and it will benefit me for years to come.”
Those training sessions paid off for Cordova and her teammates, who placed second at the Regional 6 Collegiate Soils Competition hosted by Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo this past November to earn their fourth straight bid to the National Collegiate Soils Contest. The team finished 14th at the national contest in April among 26 teams.
Last summer, she used those same skills in an internship with the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Resources Conservation Service. Among her many responsibilities, she took soil samples around Hanford for an area soil mapping project.
This fall, she has gotten vital viticulture research experience as an intern for the Fresno UC Cooperative Extension. Working with researcher George Zhuang, she checks grapes and the vines’ water potential much like she would back home. Her research also focuses on berry, sugar and cluster sampling as well as collecting canopy temperature data.
To help the Greenfield Scholars plan out their next career steps, the American Society of Agronomy has partnered her with a professional mentor, J.W. Lemons, a certified crop and soil adviser from Richland, Washington. She will also attend the national conference, co-hosted by national crop science and soil science organizations, Nov. 10 to 13 in San Antonio, Texas.
“This award has pushed me to work even harder in the classroom and the vineyards,” Cordova said. “If possible, I would like to become a vineyard manager back home in the Salinas Valley, and all of these different experiences have solidified that dream. I’ve always had a passion because of my family’s connection, and my soil and irrigation training here with my bilingual skills would tie it all together.”
She will get another chance to connect with professionals from across the nation this fall at the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU) annual conference on Oct. 5 to 7 in Chicago.
She was also one of five Fresno State students selected by the USDA to develop leadership, organizational and time management skills. Events will also provide her information about internships, scholarships, graduate programs, assistantships and other opportunities that are funded by private and government organizations.
Prior to life at Fresno State, Cordova was heavily involved in her Greenfield High School FFA chapter. From showing hogs on the livestock team to being a chapter officer, she quickly became inspired to pursue her dreams of a bachelor’s degree. After high school, Cordova spent two years at Hartnell Community College, receiving an associate degree in general education with an emphasis in natural science.
“I have loved my time at Fresno State and plan on making my senior year a great one,” Cordova said. “It’s easy to become involved when you’re surrounded by such a supportive and helpful staff. I’m confident in my career path, and I can’t wait to see what the future holds.”
(Story by Hayden Gray, student assistant in the Jordan College of Agricultural Sciences and Technology at Fresno State)