Changing With The Times

A varied and productive portfolio has proved successful for Richard Berry & Sons.

By Jason Jenkins | Photos By Jason Jenkins

The fields and orchards of California’s San Joaquin Valley are a long way from the skyscrapers and concrete of New York’s Wall Street. And Bob Berry’s work shirt and denim jeans won’t be mistaken for the attire of a trader on the stock exchange floor. Yet, his key to farming success echoes the sage advice of many portfolio managers.

“We’re a diversified operation,” says the third-generation manager of Richard Berry & Sons based in Cutler, California. “We’ve done a lot of different things. You just change with the times and do what you need to do to keep competitive on everything. You diversify and, hopefully, what you don’t make on one you make on the other.”

Through four generations and nearly 100 years, the Berry family has farmed in California’s Central Valley. While the focus of their enterprise has changed through the decades, their commitment to a job well done has never wavered. Today, they manage roughly 530 acres on which they grow citrus, as well as corn silage and forage wheat to supply neighboring dairies. They also run a custom agricultural land-development business.

“The family was born and raised here,” Bob says. “My grandfather, Richard, started this around 1920. My son, Vincent, is now the fourth generation. It’s a family-run partnership.”

Crop Cycles

While the Berry family has tended crops for decades, what was growing in the fields has changed significantly over time. When Bob was a boy, the family raised vegetables—bell peppers, squash and cucumbers—as well as cotton. By the time he returned from attending college at the University of California-Davis in the late 1970s, a big shift was about to occur.

nside the cab of the Challenger® 1046, Vincent Berry has every system at his fingertips thanks to the Challenger 10.4-inch AccuTerminal.

“The citrus boom was in the ’80s and still today. So, we started developing a little bit at a time,” Bob recalls. “We started with 10 acres, and we just kept adding. Next year, we should be up to about 115 to 120 acres.”

The orchards include five varieties of navel, mandarin and Valencia oranges, all of which mature at different intervals and times of the year. On average, navel orange harvest begins in October and continues until mid-May. Mandarins are similar, starting in November and concluding in June. The Valencias are typically ready by mid-May, with harvest lasting into October.

“Oranges will come into fair production in three years,” says Bob, speaking of when the trees begin bearing marketable fruit. “You have to plan ahead. Some of these trees are 25 to 30 years old, so it’s not a short-term investment.” He adds that most of their oranges are sold as fresh-market citrus.

Like other citrus producers, Bob is concerned about infestations of the Asian citrus psyllid, a tiny winged insect that spreads the bacterial disease known as citrus greening. The disease has been devastating to orange groves in Florida and Texas. “We’re trying our best to keep it out of California because there’s no cure for it,” he says, a look of concern washing over his face.

Other challenges already abound when growing citrus. Frost damage is always a concern, and the Berrys maintain wind machines in their groves to create temperature inversions to protect the fruit when the mercury plummets.

“There’s always going to be trials and tribulations in any type of farming with water, labor, the environment and all the other things,” he says. “You just sort of go with the flow. We’ve weathered it this long, so we’ll just keep weathering it.”

Feeding The Bovine Boom

An increase in oranges isn’t the only boom upon which the Berrys have built their business recently. Just as citrus found its way into the Central Valley in the 1980s, so too did an expansion of the dairy industry in the region.

“When I was younger, we grew cotton, not corn,” Bob recalls. “But when the dairies came in, we started into corn and then wheat.”

Today, the Berrys grow forage wheat and silage corn on about 410 acres, which they chop and deliver to local dairies as feed. Bob says the dairy industry’s struggles recently have led to both consolidation and herd reductions, lessening the feed demand.

“Now, the cotton is coming back,” he says, shaking his head in disbelief. “It’s sort of going in a cycle.”

Dirt Developers

The Berrys’ current diversification trifecta is completed by their custom agricultural land-development endeavors. It’s a business Richard Berry established with his sons, Kenneth and Norman (Bob’s father and uncle, respectively), in the late 1960s when the west side of the Central Valley began receiving some water from the California Aqueduct.

Tim Hennesay, left, of Quinn Co. in Selma, California, visits with Vincent and Bob Berry about the latest addition to their tractor fleet.

The business runs the gamut of development—from disking and light chiseling to deep ripping and land leveling—on jobs ranging in size from 5 acres to a couple hundred acres.

They also have specialized in creating berms on which citrus growers are planting trees.

“That’s one of the newer things people are getting into,” Bob says. “They’ll put their citrus up on a berm so they get a little more drainage away from the root zone.”

Today, Bob finds himself more tied to a desk than in his younger days. Usually, it’s Vincent or one of five employees out in the fields and citrus orchards operating their varied fleet of tractors. He says change remains constant in the valley. As issues with labor grow, many are moving toward crops—such as walnuts, almonds and pistachios—that largely can be harvested mechanically rather than by hand. There’s another concern on his mind as well: water.

“It’s probably one of the biggest constraints that we’ll have down the road,” he says. “California has a diverse population, but a lot more urban than rural. The water situation will be dictated by where the votes are. The population is closing in all the time.”

These concerns, however, don’t dampen Bob’s satisfaction in what his family’s business has achieved in nearly a century. And he looks forward to seeing what lies ahead for Vincent, who has learned the importance of diversification.

“Stay diversified. That’s all I know,” 29-year-old Vincent says. “I like growing citrus. I enjoy the row crops, and as a result, we have tractors that other guys may not. When you’re doing a job for somebody and they need something different than what the next guy can offer,” he says, referring to his family’s innovative, diversified approach, “you’re going to be OK.”