Don Cameron’s three decades of farming on the West Side of California’s San Joaquin Valley can be defined by the numbers 3 and 26.

When the 59-year-old California native started farming near Helm in 1981, his crop list totaled three: cotton, small grains and alfalfa (and two of those were iffy on some fields at Terranova Ranch).

“We had fields where alfalfa and wheat wouldn’t grow” because the white soils were virtually devoid of nutrients and loaded with salts, says Cameron, who grew up in Redding and Fresno, where he graduated from high school, then went to California State University, Fresno to obtain a degree in biology

Today, his crop maps identify 26 crops on the 7,000 acres he farms under the banners of Terranova and Prado Farms.

Crops like carrots, a multitude of seed crops, 1,000 acres of wine grapes, onions, 1,600 acres of processing tomatoes contracted to four canneries, prunes, pistachios, almonds, walnuts, and many more now flourish where wheat would once not germinate.

In recognition of his leadership in California agriculture, and his accomplishments in cotton production, Cameron was selected as winner of the 2012 Farm Press/Cotton Foundation High Cotton Award for the Western states.

His farming career has been an ongoing initiative in reclamation, over time fostering a cornucopia of crops. Soil amendments — gypsum, soil sulfur and occasionally sulfuric acid — along with persistent salt leaching and application of 35,000 tons of chicken litter annually from nearby poultry operations, have created land that will grow just about anything.

“We have always turned under crop residue, and that has helped tremendously,” Cameron says. “Years ago, when growers used to burn wheat stubble, we turned it under. Now most everyone does.”

Year after year of growing deep-rooted cotton and alfalfa also opened up the ground as roots bore into the tight soils, creating tunnels for deep water penetration and leaching.

“It takes a lot of time to reclaim ground,” Cameron says, but it has resulted in limitless cropping options today.

Diversification keeps the books balanced. “Several years ago we sold grapes for $80 per ton — we couldn’t give away wine grapes back then. Today, wineries are calling for grapes.”

Prices for SJV wine grapes are triple and quadruple what they were just a few years ago. Markets for many of California’s specialty crops can be fickle, and growers hope to have at least some that are in demand in any given year.