Jason and Jim Jasper of Stewart and Jasper Orchards

Second and third-generation almond farmers, Jason Jasper, left, and his father Jim, operate Stewart and Jasper Orchards near Newman, Calif.

Jim Jasper: A lifetime in almonds

Commercial almond production in California began more than 50 years ago. Industry changes helped Stewart and Jasper grow as a company. Stewart and Jasper handles about 2 percent of the state's two billion-pound almond crop.    

Two percent may not seem much in many instances, but when it’s 2 percent of two billion it suddenly becomes something significant.

Jim Jasper believes he may have found his “sweet spot.” The estimated 40 million pounds of almonds he handles each year represents 2 percent of the statewide almond harvest. Regardless of the statewide almond yield, Jasper has maintained that ratio for many years through his hulling, shelling, and marketing activities.

It’s a figure he’s happy with.

Jasper began to learn about farming as a child. In 1948, his father Lee Jasper partnered with Romain Stewart to plant a little-known crop to California farmers. At the time, Lee Jasper was also in the poultry industry and commercial almond production was relatively unheard of in California.

Not anymore. Today, almond trees are as commonplace as gridlock on a Los Angeles freeway as growers have capitalized on factors that built the almond industry from nothing to a multi-billion dollar industry.

By the mid-1960s, Jim Jasper was working his way into the business his father and Stewart built. In 1967, Jasper became a partner in the business alongside his father.

California’s almond acreage remained flat at roughly 100,000 bearing acres through the 1950s and 1960s. By 1970, the number was began to rapidly climb but sthose who could separate the edible nut from the shell was low.

Jasper graduated college at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in 1967 with a degree in farm management. When he returned to the family farming operation, his father was out of the poultry business and partnered with Stewart in California’s fledgling almond industry.

By the mid-1970s, Jasper needed an almond huller “because we couldn’t find anybody who would hull our almonds.” At the time almond acreage in his area was still quite low – just him and a neighbor with about 200 acres each. The huller would preparedthe nuts for in-shell shipment to a buyer.

With the growing need to further process almonds and separate the shells from the nut, Jasper said the advent of sheer roll technology allowed Stewart and Jasper to expand into alomond shelling.

Revolution begins

“It really revolutionized the industry,” he said of sheer roll technology.

Changes in the almond industry continued in the 1980s, Jasper says. Those changes were as good for the industry as they were for Stewart and Jasper.

“At the time, there were only 10-15 almond handlers who would take almonds and it was mainly Blue Diamond,” he explained.

“By the mid-1980, we started hulling and shelling almonds and we had a commodity that was very conducive to put in a box so we started becoming almond handlers. By 1990, it went from about 15 companies being an almond handler to about 130,” he said.

Jasper counts himself fortunate to have had the opportunity to return to a business his father began and was able to build through hard work and opportunity. His formal education at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo helped prepare him for today. Jasper is forever grateful to his father Lee, and Mr. Stewart for mentoring him during his early days.

“My father was a good businessman,” Jasper said. “Mr. Stewart was a very good farmer. I learned from both of them."

“When I came back from college I saw an opportunity to get into farming,” Jasper continued.  “Their aspiration was to see Stewart and Jasper perpetuate and carry onto the next generation.”

Jasper is quick to credit his long-time staff as the driving force behind his company’s success.

“One of the things I’ve learned over the years is the value of people,” he said. “An important attribute of any good business is to surround you with good people. I give credit to the people we have here at Stewart and Jasper for keeping the business going as long as we have.”

People centric focus

This people-focused emphasis carries over to his business philosophy. It’s why Jasper decided years ago that growing the business beyond 2 percent of the state's almonds would not serve him or his employees well.

“I don’t care how productive your orchards are or how good your equipment is. If you don’t have good people you really don’t have a good business,” he said.

Stewart said his father preached to him constantly, “Jim, you don’t have to be the biggest, but strive to be the best.”

Jim Jasper added, “I think that you can get too big. “We’ve grown with the industry. We haven’t had to go out and solicit new growers because our growers continue to put in new trees and expand."

"As they expand, we expand with them. We’re probably at 80 percent capacity here, and we’re great with that. If our growers want to plant more trees we can accommodate them, I would never have aspirations to take this business from 2 percent to 4 percent of the industry. If we tried to double it, I would not feel comfortable.”

Why?

Jasper said, "We would lose our efficiency."

“Instead of going just 40 miles for almonds we might have to go 80 to 100 miles for almonds, which extends the costs needed to get those almonds,” he continued.

Aside from almonds, Jasper also farms cherries and citrus from his Newman-based operation.

As the almond industry expands on the value-added business model to produce more than two billion pounds, Jasper remains optimistic about the company’s future.

“My son Jason has kind of followed my footsteps and graduated from college in agriculture. He has been here now for 18 years,” Jasper said.

In this time, Jason has utilized his passion for the value-added segment of the business to help build a retail market that includes gift boxes and individual packages of flavored almonds and other almond products, including almond butter.

“You put people where they are productive, and that’s where his interests are,” Jasper said. “He’s a little different than his dad. I grew up in farming, and hulling and shelling – that was pretty much established when Jason came back from college.”

Value-added

One of Jason’s responsibilities is the business' retail side that Stewart and Jasper has built over the years. It includes wholesale container shipments of almonds to foreign ports; a major facet of the company’s business.

“We like to produce small batches for uniqueness and quality,” Jason said. “Our primary focus is quality."

“We like the more trendy flavors,” Jason continued. “Instead of a cheddar cheese-flavored almond, we tried an Asiago cheese-flavored almond.”

Like his father, Jason does not have the desire to push the business beyond the 2 percent ratio since it allows them to focus their relatively small volume of retail product on quality and trying new, seasonal niche products popular with consumers.

A small industrial kitchen at the Newman facility is where new almond flavors and products like an almond butter and some apricot products are created.

“We did the apricots because of our ties to Patterson and its apricot production,” Jason said.

Patterson, Calif. is the self-described “Apricot capital of the world,” though much of its agricultural production, like other regions of California, has shifted towards almonds.

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Stewart and Jasper maintains retail stores at its Newman plant location, in Patterson located off Interstate 5 in Modesto, and along Cannery Row in Montereyf. Along with some retail sales, they also have a small, but growing amount of wholesale business.

Jim admits that retirement intrigues him and that he’d like to slow down as he nears 70 years of age. Still, the day-to-day business excites him.

“I enjoy the work because of the people we work with,” he said.

He continues to remain active in issues important to California agriculture, including the fight for water which he says is worse than he’s ever seen. He is working with the local water district on a recycled water plan that could deliver treated tertiary water from the cities of Modesto and Turlock to growers on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley.

While Jim Jasper is no longer servves on the Almond Board of California (ABC) board, Jasper still hosts ABC tours at his operation. A recent sustainability tour included state regulators who saw what the almond industry is doing as good environmental stewards, and to hear how state laws and regulations can sometimes present challenges to agricultural business like his own.

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