Portraits of a new generation of farmers
September/October 2009 California Country magazine
California's young farmers and ranchers share the challenges and rewards of their profession.
The American farmer, to put it bluntly, is no spring chicken. According to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, the average age of the U.S. farmer is now 57 years old, up from 55 in 2002.
What's alarming about this upward trend is not only that the nation's farmers are graying, but the short supply of young farmers taking over the reins. In 2007, just 2 percent of the nation's farmers were younger than 35, compared to 16 percent in 1982.
With fewer people going into the farming profession, there is growing concern that there will not be enough farmers left to feed the nation's 307 million hungry mouths and the world beyond. As it is, there are currently fewer than 1 million U.S. farmers responsible for supplying the country's breadbasket.
Consider the rapid decline of the nation's farms and farmland—California alone lost some 2,500 farms and 6.2 million acres of farmland in the last 20 years. Thus, cultivating a new generation of food producers has become ever more urgent.
And today's young farmers and ranchers have their work cut out for them. Not only have they inherited many of the issues and challenges that farmers in past generations had to overcome, but now they also have others. For example, they must tackle increasing urban encroachment, foreign competition, more restrictive environmental regulations, tougher food safety standards, higher operating costs and growing shortages in labor, water and other resources necessary to farm.
As some of the most educated, productive and innovative farmers in the world, many of them have been able to turn their challenges into opportunities by making adjustments, creating solutions and improving the way they farm to keep their family operations viable for their children and future generations.
Here are a few examples of what some of California's young farmers and ranchers are doing.
Santa Clara County
Story by Christine Souza
Photo by Matt Salvo
Tim Chiala, who represents a fourth generation in farming, says he and his family intend to remain in agriculture well into the future. Here, he stands in a field of bok choy with his wife, Corre, and their two children, Tim Jr. and Brinn. Bok choy is one of many vegetables the Chialas grow for the family's food-processing company.
Walking along a field of leeks with his 4-year-old son, Tim Chiala says he is confident that despite all of the challenges in farming today, there will be a bright future for his son's generation.
"I think we'll have a really good business for the next generations," said 31-year-old Chiala, part owner of George Chiala Farms Inc. and its director of fresh produce sales and procurement. "My dad has laid a great foundation for us because he worked so hard. He started the processing facilities and, since my brother and I became full time, we've had double-digit growth almost every year. I think we're going to have a nice operation to leave for our kids."
Located in Morgan Hill just a few miles north of Gilroy, the "Garlic Capital of the World," George Chiala Farms is a farming and food-processing company that sells farm-grown ingredients to nationally known companies for the development of salsas, soups, pasta sauces and more.
Chiala and his brother, George Chiala Jr., follow in the footsteps of their grandfather, Vito Chiala, who arrived at Ellis Island from Italy in 1911. The family grew apricots and prunes in Cupertino and in the 1950s moved to Morgan Hill in Santa Clara County.
Vito's son, George Chiala Sr., began farming on his own in the early 1970s. About a decade later, he realized if he was going to send his four children to college, he needed to broaden his supply chain and think outside of selling produce to the unstable fresh market. With globalization becoming more of an option for farmers, he built value-added processing equipment to satisfy smaller niche markets domestically and around the world.
Having seen all four children successfully through college, George Chiala Sr. has accomplished this personal goal and much more. George Chiala Farms specializes in garlic and a wide variety of peppers including Anaheim, jalapeño and habanero chilies and red and green bell peppers. Many of the peppers and other vegetables from the farm are processed in a number of ways including diced, pureed, roasted and frozen.
Staying successful while located among a myriad of vegetable and food-processing companies on California's Central Coast isn't always easy. But it is not the competition that concerns Chiala. It is other challenges such as food safety, overregulation and the struggle to maintain a stable work force.
"Of course when it comes to food safety, we want to minimize the amount of exposure that we have to any kind of bacteria. I think we do a very good job as it is, but all of the paperwork in the world is not going to change the fact that you are farming outside," Chiala said. "We are taking many extra steps to grow a better quality product, so when it comes down to a choice between domestic or foreign products, we hope consumers purchase California-grown."
To ensure that their products are as safe as possible, Chiala starts with a training program for employees.
"We give our employees the right tools to do the job. Plus, we explain what it is that we want, and we make sure employees have easy solutions such as being accessible to pressure washers and equipment, and we make the paperwork easy to complete," Chiala said.
Government regulations are often a burden and usually increase the cost of a farmer's bottom line. Regulations that address environmental issues, Chiala said, frequently deal with the same topic and come from all levels of government including local, state and federal.
"One problem for us is these agencies often don't agree with one another," Chiala said. "Because they don't agree, you have to have meetings with all of them and keep going around until you accomplish what you set out to do."
Aside from the government fees and regulations, Chiala is also concerned about ensuring that he has the labor he needs to plant and harvest his crops. All of the crops the family grows must be harvested by hand, which means his labor cost is significantly higher than those farming operations that are harvested by machine, such as winegrapes and processing tomatoes. To reduce these costs, growers are trying to mechanize wherever possible, but in the meantime, any slight shortage of labor can cause quite a setback to the farm's production schedule.
"Labor is always an issue. We might have all the people we need to harvest the crop one week and not the next," Chiala said. "Unfortunately, even in tough economic times, there are not a lot of people who want to do this work. It is hard work."
To ensure that farmers in California and throughout the nation have access to a stable work force, Chiala is supporting legislative efforts to develop a guest-worker program.
"We need to have a mechanism to hire workers and not make it complicated," he said.
Despite the complex and sometimes frustrating issues farmers confront every day, Chiala said he truly enjoys agriculture and helping grow the family business.
"If we didn't love it, we wouldn't be doing it," he said. "The benefits definitely outweigh any of the challenges that we face."
Christine Souza is a reporter for California Country. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Story and photo by Ching Lee
Farming represents ongoing change for Amar Sohal, left, and other young farmers in California. While his family once focused on peaches and prunes, they now also grow almonds and walnuts—a diversity that helps them maintain a competitive advantage. Amar is shown in one of the family’s Sutter County nut orchards with wife Rita, older son Arjan, father Balbir and mother Narjit.
When Amar Sohal was growing up, prunes and canning peaches were the bread and butter of his family's farming operation in Sutter County, once considered the "Peach Bowl of the World" and still home to Sunsweet Growers Inc., the largest prune-packing plant in the world.
Today, prunes and peaches remain two of the county's top crops, but urban growth, increased globalization, the closing of major food-processing plants in the area and other issues have had a significant impact on the region's agricultural landscape and what farmers are doing to preserve their way of life.
At 31, Sohal is part of a new wave of young farmers facing issues and challenges that are unique to their generation, such as competing in a more global marketplace. Sohal said farmers today have to be more innovative, efficient and grow a better-quality crop to compete against cheap imports that are often produced without the regulatory oversight and high production costs that California farmers struggle with every day.
Like many young farmers today, Sohal got his start in the business from working on the family farm at an early age. His father emigrated from India to the United States in 1970 at the age of 16, first working for his grandparents, who had an established farming operation in the Yuba-Sutter region, and later working for other local farmers in peach orchards and tomato fields.
Having grown up on a farm, Sohal had always intended to follow in his father's footsteps and work in agriculture. But he also understood that for him to keep the family farming operation competitive and viable, he couldn't simply do what farmers in past generations have done.
"Farming is ongoing change," he said. "So to maintain the family farm and continue to build for the future and my children's generation, I have to diversify."
That means growing more than one crop. Whereas his family used to grow primarily peaches and prunes, they are now also growing almonds and walnuts. That's because growing a variety of crops spreads risk, he said. It also keeps his work force busy throughout the year. And with agriculture's tight labor market, keeping a busy crew helps to keep workers on the farm.
"The diversity of crops helps maintain a competitive advantage because you don't have all your eggs in one basket," he said. "If you're doing good in two crops and the economics of the other two crops aren't so good, it kind of balances out at the end of the day."
Although Sohal knew he was destined to be a farmer, he said his father, Balbir, always insisted that he get an education first. Sohal made good on that deal and graduated from California State University, Sacramento, with a degree in business management and marketing. Today he operates his own farm next to his family's property, with help from his father.
"We have a close relationship, and I'm thankful that he gave me the opportunity to be involved in his farming operation," Sohal said of his father. "That gave me the opportunity to start my own operation. But he really emphasized education. He put me through school and to this day continues to assist me on the farming side."
In addition to farming, Sohal also knew he wanted to work in an agriculture-related job that keeps him involved with other aspects of agriculture while building important relationships in his local community. As vice president of Farm Credit West in Yuba City, Sohal now helps other farmers finance their businesses. He said the job keeps him connected to important issues facing other young farmers and ranchers, such as the cost to farm and getting started on their operations.
With two little ones of his own, Sohal said his wish is to pass on his passion for farming to the next generation and have his children someday take over his operation.
That's why he's continuing to expand the family business by growing the size of the farm and acquiring more property in different regions of the state. Having a bigger operation allows for economies of scale and more crop diversification, he said. Farming in different locations also enables him to grow specific crops that are ideal for those regions. And with urban development rapidly swallowing the state's farmland, being able to farm in more than one place gives farmers like him more options.
"To combat urban encroachment, we're expanding our farming region in certain areas throughout California that are designated for farming and that will continue to be farmed for years to come," Sohal said.
He's also constantly looking for new ways to cut costs while improving his productivity, cultural and conservation practices, and ultimately, his bottom line. For example, he's currently researching the feasibility of using solar power on his farm to reduce his electricity costs.
What's more, Sohal is working on improving his irrigation practices to save water, even though he already uses a micro-jet irrigation system, which is one of the most efficient methods out there. With that system, he also uses soil meters to read the moisture levels of the soil so he knows exactly when and how much to irrigate.
"The key in this business is, you become efficient," he said. "We produce a high-quality product, but in the long run we've got to become more efficient in order to compete against countries like Chile and China."
Ching Lee is a reporter for California Country. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or email@example.com.
Josh Pitigliano and Jennifer Wessel
Story by Kate Campbell
Photo by Ching Lee
Deemed an up-and-coming “power couple” in Tulare County agriculture, Jennifer Wessel and Josh Pitigliano share a passion for ensuring the long-term success of farming and ranching in California. She is a large-animal veterinarian and he manages his family’s almond orchards. Together, they also operate a grain-planting business.
Josh Pitigliano's commute from home to office stretches just 100 yards. The Tulare County farmer points out, however, that his easy commute provides little excuse to be late for the daily meeting with his father and two brothers.
Over steaming mugs of coffee, they hash out the day's plans to tend the crops—almonds, winegrapes, pistachios, corn and wheat—dotted over a 45-mile area.
Pitigliano manages the family's almond orchards, while his brothers divide up responsibilities for the vineyards and feed crops. Their father handles overall management and finances.
"A lot of what we do is the same as the work done by my great-grandfather, Ben Lapadula," said Pitigliano, 31, who represents the family's fourth generation in California farming. "After coming over from Italy in the 1900s, my great-grandfather planted winegrapes and grew potatoes. We still grow winegrapes today, but not potatoes. So things change."
One of those changes, he said, is the ever-increasing hurdles the family must clear to get farm products to consumers.
"Let's start with the need for adequate water," he said. "That has always been a concern in farming. But the pressures today on water delivery are far greater than a few decades ago."
And the problems are compounding, he said, from dire water shortages to increasingly restrictive regulations to environmental prohibitions to ever more contentious political and legal wrangling.
"Today the need for a reliable water supply isn't just a concern for young farmers and ranchers," Pitigliano said. "Everyone in California has a stake in this issue because everyone's future depends on the solutions we choose today.
"Sometimes it seems like the situation is portrayed as 'us against them,' an urban/rural skirmish," he noted. "Nothing could be further from the truth. Providing an adequate water supply is a problem we'll have to solve together."
He knows something about working together and forming partnerships. Besides working in the family farming business, he's also newly married. His partner, Jennifer Wessel, is a doctor of veterinary medicine, specializing in dairy cattle.
The couple have started their own grain-planting business and operate it in addition to their other roles. That makes for long days and a demanding schedule. And living next door to the office on the family farm means Pitigliano is always on call, 24 hours a day.
"I know what his job entails and he knows what my job entails," said Wessel, 32. "At the end of the day, we come home and understand what's going on in each other's worlds. It helps that we share a commitment to producing and promoting healthy food products."
Pitigliano says he appreciates the family tie with his business because it allows him more flexibility in agricultural pursuits off the farm, including his involvement with Farm Bureau on the local and state levels. He said staying current in the issues that affect agriculture is like another job. Finding solutions means getting involved in scientific and technical developments, as well as being engaged in political and community activities.
When he talks about farming, Pitigliano uses a term to describe his job that his great-grandfather might not have understood—multitasking. Past generations worked hard, he said, but the concept of doing multiple things at once just to keep up is a relatively new demand—made possible with increasingly sophisticated technology.
That technology allows Pitigliano to oversee operations in the family's almond orchards and still be available to serve as a director of the Tulare County Farm Bureau, as a past chair of the Tulare County Farm Bureau's Young Farmers and Ranchers organization and to participate on the California Farm Bureau Federation's Specialty Crops Advisory Committee for almonds.
Besides water, he says food safety is another area of mutual concern for farmers and consumers.
"Here on our farm, with crops that go directly to the kitchen, we follow all the regulations for growing. The government can only do so much," Pitigliano said.
"Food safety starts on the farm," he stressed. "We eat what we grow. We live where we grow it. It has to be safe and it has to be the best. We're proud of what we do and want to build markets and earn profits around that."
Wessel, who also is active in Farm Bureau's Young Farmers and Ranchers, notes that the group provides an opportunity to be plugged in with people who share the same passion for agriculture's long-term success—and who understand the complexities of farming.
"I'm especially concerned about the media's portrayal and perception of agriculture, particularly when it comes to animal welfare," said Wessel. "I want to make sure people are aware of all the good things we're doing with livestock and not just what other people tell them."
A past secretary of the Tulare/Kings County Veterinary Medical Association, Dr. Jennifer, as she's called by the dairy farmers she helps, is currently a delegate to the California Veterinary Medical Association and also is a member of California Women for Agriculture.
The newlyweds say that even though their days are long and the problems they face are challenging, they can't see themselves doing anything else but farming. They just hope it will be possible for future generations of young California farmers to do the same.
Kate Campbell is a reporter for California Country. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or firstname.lastname@example.org.