Califonia Bountiful

They're nuts for school

November/December 2020 California Bountiful magazine

Farm-based business helps siblings secure their future

More online: Watch "The College Fund Nut Co." on California Bountiful TV.

Siblings Hank and Haley Christensen run a small business that's cultivating a strong work ethic and teaching them about the family farm, while also providing a nest egg for college. Photo: © 2020 Frank Rebelo

Even though she's only 15, Haley Christensen has nurtured a family business for roughly half her life.

She and brother Hank operate a fruit and nut company from the family ranch in Tehama County, some 120 miles north of Sacramento. They buy, package and then sell dried plums, walnuts and almonds—stocking bags of natural goodness in several retail locations.

But this isn't a typical farm-based business. Haley is a sophomore at Red Bluff High School; Hank is 18 and a senior at Red Bluff. Yet together—and with the indispensable help of their parents—they've run the College Fund Nut Co. since 2012.

Do the math and you'll see Haley was just 7 and Hank 9 when the venture started at the family's Red Bluff home.

"I was pretty young—second grade, I think," Haley said. "I thought, 'OK, that sounds fun.' I didn't really know what a business was when I was 7, or how much work it would be."

And it has been work, Hank and Haley agree, from those early days of learning to sell and make change to today's push to recruit customers and master the intricacies of farming and accounting.

"We work really hard for everything in this business, and nothing comes to us," Hank said. "We work for what we want."

The siblings sell crops grown on the family farm, including almonds, above, as well as walnuts and dried plums. Photo: © 2020 Frank Rebelo

Balancing work and fun

One company goal is raising money for higher education—something cleverly spelled out on packaging that reads: "We're NUTS (or PLUM NUTS) for school." But just as important is the ambition to cultivate and support a strong work ethic.

"They have done amazing," said mom Mary Christensen. "They really have a good sense for what it takes to balance your work, your play and your homework and whatever classes they are taking."

"I'm proud of their dedication, commitment and the hard work they've put in," added dad Tyler Christensen, immediate past president of the Tehama County Farm Bureau. "More than anything, though, I'm proudest of the educational experience that they've gotten."

That education comes courtesy of the ranch and its hundreds of acres of walnuts, almonds and prune-plums, along with a prune dehydration facility. This lightly populated county, known for natural beauty ranging from the Sierra Nevada to the Sacramento River, has been an ideal spot to cultivate the youthful business.

Situated about halfway between Sacramento and the Oregon border, Tehama County is known as the gateway to Lassen Volcanic National Park and for its strong agricultural tradition. Walnuts, almonds, olives, prunes and cattle typically top its list of crops.

Haley was 7 and Hank was 9 when they launched the College Fund Nut Co. in 2012. Photo courtesy of Christensen family

The kernel of a business

The origin story of the College Fund Nut Co. has almost escaped family memory, but it was Tyler who remembered 2012 and how walnuts continued to rain onto the ground long after the harvest ended. He suggested Hank and Haley pick up the nuts and sell them.

The kernel of a business formed during a family discussion on the sofa. For their first farmers market, Hank and Haley handmade a company sign with college flags and cardstock shapes and letters. In pint-sized aprons, they staffed a foldout table/booth with a cashbox and the essential help of Mom and Dad.

"It was fun and kind of scary at that age," said Hank, who speaks confidently about the growth cycle of nuts and dried plums. "A lot of people wanted to talk to us. … I got to have a lot of fun with that over the years."

Yet they were still youngsters in a grown-up world. When they sat down while prospective buyers walked by, Tyler reminded the siblings to stand and added: "Smiles make sales."

Haley and Hank take a hands-on approach, delivering dried plums to Holly Coffman at the Enjoy store in Red Bluff. Photo: © 2020 Frank Rebelo

Community connections

But there was more than personality to the business. Once, "we pulled them out of school and took them to a workshop to learn about food safety and food handling," Tyler said. Not surprisingly, they were the only children there.

In some ways, the College Fund Nut Co. is a typical business. The company buys fruit and nuts from the ranch at a wholesale price, and then prepares them for retail sale. The siblings look at prior years' sales to figure out how much to buy.

Hank and Haley have taken on more company chores through the years, and also have learned the importance of shaking hands and wearing proper business attire. They've put those lessons to use in a variety of settings, including legislative receptions in Washington, D.C., and Sacramento.

These days, Hank and Haley's main business focus has shifted from farmers markets to serving retail clients such as Julia's Fruit Stand in Los Molinos and A&R Custom Butchering and the Enjoy store, both in Red Bluff.

The fruit stand also began as a college funding effort. Owner Kathy Brandt said the stand was named for her oldest daughter, Julia, who today is a senior in college. Brandt has two younger daughters—one a freshman in college and another headed that way in a few years.

Julia's Fruit Stand mainly sells its own harvest—peaches, nectarines, tomatoes, pumpkins, etc.—from Memorial Day to Halloween. The College Fund Nut Co. products are one exception.

"They are great kids," said Brandt, who coached Haley in basketball and counts herself as a family friend. "When they started doing this and we found out, we wanted to help them. They have developed a work ethic that so many other kids don't have a chance to do."

Mary Christensen helps daughter Haley with the bookkeeping. Photo: © 2020 Frank Rebelo

Lessons learned

Today, Hank spends more time in the field, while Haley devotes more hours to packaging and customer service. Mary helps her daughter with the business side of the company, while Hank soaks up the ins and outs of pruning, irrigation and more from his father. He's also in flight school to become a private pilot, like his dad.

"I'm proud of him," Tyler said. "This year, he really took an interest in the operation and he was truly helpful. I try to show him things that are interesting and keep his attention a little bit. At the same time, he has to pay some dues."

Hank absorbs farming lessons while also paying attention to people and business skills.

"You've got to interact with a lot of people and make good choices—and not get caught up in the baloney," he said of running a successful business.

"Meeting new people is super important in business and in life," Haley added, reflecting on the lessons she has learned. "The business has definitely helped me make a better connection with someone by having a firmer handshake and making eye contact—stuff like that."

As for the actual college fund, it's fairly modest. Family members compare the venture to raising an animal for 4-H or the fair. Neither Hank nor Haley have a precise number for savings, but both agree they are well short of paying for their degrees.

"College is expensive these days," said Hank, who plans to pursue a degree in agricultural business at California State University, Chico, and then return to the ranch.

Haley is thinking about a business degree and a career in dermatology. Still, she plans to remain connected to the family ranch and perhaps continue running the fruit and nut company after college.

She added: "We'd have to find another name."

Cyndee Fontana-Ott

The Christensen siblings have learned all aspects of the business by working with their parents. From left, Tyler, Haley, Mary and Hank Christensen. Photo: © 2020 Frank Rebelo

Cultivating a tradition

The Christensen family is a multi-generational example of the American farming tradition.

According to a 2019 report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, roughly 98% of farms in the country are family farms that account for 88% of farm production. Many of the more than 2 million enterprises have been in family hands for generations, and that number includes the Christensens, who have deep roots in agriculture. They and other family members tend hundreds of acres of nuts, plums, cattle and more on a Tehama County property known as the Edwards Ranch.

Tyler Christensen is a fifth-generation farmer on his mother's side. The family began farming in the Santa Clara Valley, but his grandfather moved north to Tehama County after feeling the pinch of urban development.

Today, Christensen is the third generation to work the ranch where he was born and raised. The next generation would include his children, Hank and Haley, who already are associated with a farm-based business through their College Fund Nut Co.

Haley, 15, said she plans to remain connected to the ranch, but is looking toward a career in dermatology. Hank, 18, said he wants to join the family business full time after earning a college degree in agricultural business and also securing a license as a pest control adviser.

"I want to go back to the farm and manage it—just like my dad," Hank said.

Both Tyler and Mary Christensen, Hank and Haley's parents, appreciate their son's plans to become the family's sixth-generation farmer and the fourth generation on the ranch.

"It's nice to hear that," Mary Christensen said. "Of course, we don't care what our kids choose to do—we just want them to be successful and have passion in what they choose for their careers and what they want to do in life."

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