At a young age, Fresno State student Omar Flores seemed to follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather toward a dairy career, but he is now enjoying national recognition for his interest in weed science.

This past summer, the Gustine native and plant science senior was one of 25 Golden Opportunity Scholars award recipients selected from across the nation by the American Society of Agronomy. He was invited to attend the organization’s national conference held jointly with national crop and soil science organizations from Nov. 10 to 13 in San Antonio, Texas.

The trip will provide an opportunity for Flores to network with industry professionals about career paths, learn about new products and innovations, and gain insight into key issues from nationally-respected faculty, industry members and researchers.

“I’m grateful for the opportunity, and I know this experience will help my career greatly,” said Flores. “The nation depends on the Central Valley for so many key agricultural products, so I’m looking forward to learning from others and about their research and work. I want to incorporate new and more efficient methods here and help growers become even more productive.”

Flores was first introduced to agriculture at age 5 by his father, Jose Manuel Flores, who worked in the hospital pen at the John Toste Dairy. As the younger Flores grew up, he helped out with various duties such as administering vaccines, moving hay bales and washing equipment.

His father, who moved to the United States at age 18 from Jalisco, Mexico, honed his initial dairy experience at his parents’ dairy farm in Mexico, which his father, David Flores, still operates today with a herd of 100 Holstein cattle.

Omar Flores, however, started to branch out in a different direction after high school when he worked for a year in the beef cattle industry.

Employed as a ranch hand at Kuykendall Livestock, Omar Flores worked under Fresno State beef science alumnus Dustin Kuykendall feeding cows, building fences and doing other tasks. Pleased with Flores’ work, Kuykendall encouraged him to think bigger and attend Modesto Junior College where he could take plant science courses, especially with the industry’s demand for pest control advisers.

Flores heeded his advice and found a passion for field crops and soil science at the college as he worked toward an associate’s degree in agriculture science. He also got hands-on experience at the same time with the Cerutti Brothers produce company and harvested broccoli for two winter seasons and one summer season.

The career switch paid off, and Flores is now busy balancing his coursework with an internship at Helena Agri-Enterprises in Merced, a company that specializes in fertilizer, seeds, crop protectants and other products.

This commitment means he gets up at 4:30 a.m. each Tuesday and Thursday this fall to make the drive to Merced to squeeze in a half day’s work before returning to campus in time for his midday classes. The rest of the week is equally hectic with early morning and early evening classes sandwiched around a nearly full day of work in Merced.

During the summer, Flores worked 40 hours or more a week at the same 23-acre research farm studying the effectiveness of various products on crops. He was also involved in general farming tasks that included irrigation, equipment operation, maintenance and soil preparation.

“Someday I might become a farm manager,” said Flores, “so all of this extra experience running farm equipment will come in handy, too. I also get to learn about a wide variety of crops on our research farm and other plots scattered between Fresno, Madera, Merced, Modesto and San Joaquin counties.”

During his 1 1/2 years working at Helena, he has applied knowledge from the field directly to the classroom while studying plant diseases, insects or crop nutrition in one of his favorite plant science classes taught by Dr. Sharon Benes.

“The lab was a great experience because I had the ability to work with crops I had never seen up close,” Flores said. “I also got to apply what I have learned in my internship to a new setting in her class. I worked with a small plot where I planted romaine lettuce and took samples of how the nitrogen moved in the crop.”

Other students also benefit from his experience since he serves as the secretary of the campus irrigation club. He is also a member of the plant science club, which is one of the most active on campus from providing community education and outreach, to giving vegetables from its campus garden plot to local charities.

Both clubs also host industry professionals and provides opportunities to visit various companies and learn about careers in the field.

After graduating with a plant health degree this fall, Flores will become a full-time employee in January for Helena in its chemical research and development area.

The transition should not be hard since Flores already received his qualified applicator license this past summer. He hopes to add his pest control adviser license in 2020 and eventually a certified crop adviser license.

“Working with weeds and trying to limit their effect on crops is a key issue especially since more and more are becoming resistant to treatments,” said Flores. “There’s a need to find new solutions, especially as the world’s demand for food grows with population increases. This kind of research will hopefully benefit others around the country and world. That’s a pretty special opportunity.”

(Story by Hayden Gray, student assistant in the Jordan College of Agricultural Sciences and Technology at Fresno State)