Jimi Valov is passionate about farming and his community — and it shows. Whether he’s volunteering at the World Ag Expo, helping cook lunch at a local dairy dispersal sale, participating at an American Pistachio Growers event, or serving people from his home kitchen, he’s doing it with an infectious smile.
Valov farms pistachios, almonds, and cotton in three San Joaquin Valley counties: Tulare, Kings, and Kern. A third-generation farmer with over 1,000 acres of pistachios, 600 acres of almonds, and 600 acres of cotton, he is owner and managing partner of Valov & Sons Farming.
In years like this, when rain is plentiful, he may also dry farm some grain on land near Lost Hills, Calif., for which he paid $186 an acre. He will simply drill in the seed, he says, and let Mother Nature take care of the rest.
The grandson of Fred Agop Valov, an emigrant from Eastern Europe who came to Kern County in 1904 and quickly began planting potatoes, hay, and cotton. Jimi says his grandfather served as a Russian minister in Shafter for 41 years, helping his congregation get started in farming, buy homes, and start businesses.
Jimi’s father, John Fred Valov, continued the family tradition of producing row crops, growing wheat and cotton in Kern County, and a little farther north in the Waukena area of Tulare and Kings counties.
By the early 1980s, Jimi had met Corky Anderson, a Central Valley pistachio farmer, who told the Jimi he could make more money with 40 acres of pistachios than he could with 400 acres of cotton.
Jimi’s father wasn’t a fan of permanent crops at the time, and Jimi, ever looking for an opportunity, waited until his father took a trip to Japan in 1983 before planting his first block of pistachios. Some long-time farmers in that day also didn’t think highly of permanent crops on the rich, Tulare soil, believing a better use for the land was row crops.
“I figured with pistachios, I could farm less ground and not have all the expenses and employees,” Jimi says. “That was my goal.” By finding and buying the less expensive ground, he was following in the footsteps of his father, who likewise saw opportunities as a young man to farm good ground for a cheaper price.
Jimi’s father discovered those opportunities just north of Kern County. Land that commanded $1,000 an acre in Kern County at the time could be bought for $200 an acre in neighboring Tulare County.
His knack for finding land deals spread to more than just open ground. “In 2000 and 2001, when almond prices got down to about 60 cents per pound, I was buying orchards in the Wasco area for $2,500 an acre with trees on them.” He recently sold all that land for $25,000 to $30,000 an acre, opting to buy land for $10,000 an acre in neighboring Tulare County.
“I bought down there because that’s where my dad had been,” he saus. “I wound up coming back to Tulare to buy ground for a third of the price — it was all timing for me.” As time went along, he also learned more about producing pistachios and almonds, which has helped him to profit from nut crops.
Aside from buying low and selling high, Jimi simply loves to farm. “If it’s in your blood, and you really like to grow things and make people happy, you’ll succeed. I have tiny bags of pistachios that I’ll give to people, and I love to see the look on their faces when they get them.”
THE RIGHT CHOICE
In hindsight, Jimi believes he picked the right tree to grow in the Valley. “In 1983, everybody probably thought I was crazy to plant pistachios. Now, everyone around me is planting them.”
Over time, he continued to learn what it takes to produce pistachios in the San Joaquin Valley. Unlike almond trees, which produce crops for about 25 years, pistachios have a much longer life. His first 40 acres of pistachios, planted in 1983, are still producing large crops 33 years later.
But a pistachio tree takes much longer to produce a crop, and for that reason he believes growing them is not for the impatient, or those who can’t financially weather the time it takes to recover one’s investment.
It’s important to have other sources of farm income, or “very deep pockets,” while waiting seven years for the first crop — and even longer to pay the lender.
Variety choice and pruning are also important, Jimi says. “The tree grows rapidly early on — it just wants to go vegetative.” Having the tree properly pruned when it begins to set a crop is vital, he says. “If you don’t have the tree grown and established before the crops starts coming in, then you’re stuck with a little tree for the rest of your life.”
One of his management strategies is to prune heavy on a heavy year and light on a light year. With this strategy, he says, it is possible to limit the heavy production swings common with the alternate-bearing crop.
“You don’t want to have 2,500 pounds every year — you want to get to that 7,000 pound crop someday, and that usually takes 15 to16 years. One year, we made over 8,300 pounds on some 13 year-old trees. The following year, we only made 1,700 pounds. Now, with our pruning system, it seems that we can make 5,000 to 6,000 pounds every year. That’s a lot better than having the big swings.”
Jimi likes the Gold Hills and Lost Hills varieties. Gold Hills, he says, seems to grow a little more upright, lending itself to tighter tree and row spacing. It also makes for easier nut removal on a single shake.
Because pistachios are wind pollinated, he believes the correct selection and placement of male trees (only the female trees produce nuts) is also important. To achieve the best pollination possible, half of the male trees planted in his orchards are of the Peters variety; the other half are the Orandi variety. Orandi tends to bloom about 10 days earlier than Peters, he says, extending the opportunity for good pollination.
“You need the male trees to come out at the right time when the female trees flower. Having the two come out at different times helps.”
Jimi employs a similar practice with his almonds, but these trees are bee pollinated. Since planting his first almonds, he has begun to limit the varieties to two: Nonpareil and Monterey.
He is already looking ahead to changing this mix to varieties that need fewer bees for pollination. This is partially due to the supply of bees available each year, and partially due to the cost of bee colonies. He is looking to a new variety, Independence, which requires fewer bees to pollinate.
“I put 3-1/2 hives per acre in big orchards right now, but I can get by with half a hive in the Independence orchards — that saves money on bees right there.”
As with pistachios, Jimi likes his almonds to harvest as early in the season as possible in order to reduce the likelihood of Navel orangeworm damage, and to limit the chance of early season rains while harvesting.
In 2015, Jimi was named “Tulare Farmer of the Year” by the local Kiwanis Club, an award bestowed for community involvement and volunteerism. He previously served on the board of trustees for the Tulare Christian School before that school closed due to a dwindling student body.
He is finishing a one-year stint as chairman of the American Pistachio Growers (APG) trade association, a voluntary membership organization of growers, processors, and industry partners in California, Arizona, and New Mexico. The organization helps to market pistachios globally by providing nutrition research, and conducting government affairs and product development.
While serving on the APG board, he traveled to China with a delegation of the organization’s leaders and Miss California to promote American pistachios. China is a priority market for U.S. pistachios.
Jimi relishes his time on the APG board. He credits Corky Anderson, a long-time member of the APG board and a former APG membership chairman, with getting him involved in the organization. He served as chairman of membership committee before moving up to eventually become board chairman.
“I watched other people, like Chuck Nichols and Corky Anderson, on the board,” he says. “They were being active, so I figured someday I’d need to do that.”
He has also become an advocate for APG, defending to anyone the necessity of membership, and extolling the benefits of the organization to the pistachio industry. Even in the difficult production year of 2015, when total pistachio production fell to about 275 million pounds due largely to poor weather conditions, Jimi says he reminded growers of their need to continue their voluntary assessments. “You’re doing it for the club,” he told them. “You’re doing it for the industry and the future.”
He has also been questioned from time to time about the industry’s annual conference and gala, which he points out “is entirely paid for by sponsors — none of it comes from grower assessments.”
As evidenced by his “Farmer of the Year” honors, it isn’t just the APG board and activities surrounding the organization that animate him, or keep him busy — it’s who his is.
APG Executive Director Richard Matoian summed it well: “Jimi comes from a long line of industry leaders who have stepped up to take the helm of the APG. His time as chairman has only been one year, due to him terming out, but that has not diminished his long service to our organization.
“He has been on the board of directors continuously since 2007, served as chair of the membership services committee, and has presided as annual conference chair. Jimi has the biggest heart — so whether it’s handling BBQ duties during World Ag Expo for his family’s Christian school, opening his house for important political fundraisers, or putting together a luncheon during a memorial service for someone who has passed away in our industry, he always is willing to give of himself. He is a true example of someone who leads by example, both professionally and personally.”