‘Family’ members the root of tree fruit farm’s success

‘Family’ members the root of tree fruit farm’s success

There is nothing like one’s family, says Daniel Jackson of Family Tree Farms, fruit growers who farm about 4,000 acres in California’s San Joaquin Valley. Jackson says, “In our orchards, there is a 10,000-pound gorilla working out there – his first name is ‘water’ and his last name is ‘labor.’ We know he can jump out and beat you up any day of the year.”

There is nothing like one’s family, says Daniel Jackson of Family Tree Farms, tree fruit growers who farm about 4,000 acres in California’s San Joaquin Valley.

The Jackson family including Daniel’s father David, brother Rick, and brother-in-law Andy Muxlow are at the helm of the multi-generation farm, with the main acreage and research center located about 75 yards off Highway 99 in Goshen, just north of Visalia in Tulare County.

It’s the Jackson’s ‘extended family’ – their employees – who Daniel says are just like family due to their dedication, ideas, time, and energy to help the farm business succeed.

“Our farming name is Family Tree Farms and we look at our employees like family and our customers like family,” says Jackson, 35, who co-owns the farm with his father and brother.

“When you look at everyone like family, there is a deeper love and appreciation for everyone. The employees here take such care in what they do – they almost feel like the farm is there’s.”

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The Jackson farming business began with Daniel’s great grandfather who farmed in Tennessee. Daniel’s grandfather moved to California’s Central Valley during the Depression.

“They felt their way of living would improve in California,” Daniel says.

The packing and sales part of the operation was established in 2001.

“We are a one-stop shop.”

Flavorful fruit

The red-colored farm office building faces Highway 99 heading south. Passersby can easily see the Family Tree Farms name on the building and this company motto - “To produce, package, and ship the most flavorful fruit in the world.”

Tree fruit grown by the Jacksons include apricots, white and yellow flesh peaches and nectarines, plus plumcots, a plum cross-pollinated with an apricot.

The family also grows blueberries, and white corn for tamales – Jackson calls it “tamale corn.”

The Jacksons grow and ship about 3-4 million boxes a year – boxes average about 20 pounds of fruit per box. A small number of outside growers produce about 10 percent of the crop.

The seasonal operation typically has about 1,200 employees, yet the labor force can spike to 3,500. Apricots are field packed at “satellite pack houses” since fruit quality can be jeopardized by loading and transporting it to the main packing shed in Reedley.

In most years, farm harvest begins with blueberries in late March, followed next by apricots and peaches simultaneously in mid- to late-April. Nectarines are next with plumcots bringing up the rear in mid-May.

Jackson considers the operation a mid-to-large grower.

Fruit markets

On the market side, about 70 percent of the Jackson’s tree fruit is sold domestically with the majority sold in the Midwest and eastern states. Sales in the West are growing.

The remaining 30 percent is exported mainly to Taiwan and Canada.

On the financial end, Jackson says tree fruit grower prices are record-breaking, yet he is quick to emphasize that expenses are also at record highs.

“Five years ago 20 pounds of fruit sold for about $10 a box. Now it’s almost doubled that.”

On the expenditure side, about 75 percent of Family Tree Farms’ expenses are labor.

Jackson elaborates, “In our orchards, there is a 10,000-pound gorilla working out there – his first name is ‘water’ and his last name is ‘labor.’ We know he can jump out and beat you up any day of the year.”

A one-dollar increase in the minimum wage, which happened earlier this year, hikes Jackson’s labor costs by about $300-$400 per acre. For the entire farm, the costs translate into a labor cost increase from $1.4 million to $1.6 million.

The other 25 percent in expenses are spent on water, fuel, plus electricity for motors and pumps.

Industry consolidation continues across the nation and across industries. The California tree fruit business is no different. Jackson says consolidation in California tree fruit has evolved from about 30 packers and shippers down to 7-8 which handle about 80 percent of the production.  

Liquid gold

More on the water front. Family Tree Farms is greatly concerned about the availability of ‘liquid gold’ just like many other farms. An acre of fruit on the Jackson farm requires about 3 to 3.5 acre feet of water per crop year.

The operation is in the Westlands Water District which like many other irrigation districts received a zero surface water allocation for farmers in 2014.

Relying totally on groundwater makes Jackson feel uneasy.

“As farmers, using well water is not something we like to do.”

Well water usage is similar to a double-edged sword. First, there is the uncertainty of wells going dry anytime during the season. Second, constant well dependence increases operating costs for the Jacksons.

“We are at the mercy of a machine which could break down anytime. We have more expense by purchasing an extra set of bowls for the wells.”

The farm has an extra 300-horsepower motor for three wells in case a motor goes down.

“We can’t afford for a 3-4 week breakdown on a well so there’s extra costs in the backup equipment.”

Jackson pins some of the blame on California’s water crisis on the shirts of California government leaders for their lack of water (storage) foresight in the state where the population has doubled over the last several decades.

Varieties breed success

Jackson says other factors help breed the farm’s successful. Breeding new varieties is critical to keeping the trees and farm ahead of the curve.

“I think the number one thing that Family Tree Farms does well is picking the best varieties. Our cultural team is top-notch,” he said.

The farm weighs new varieties from about 30 breeders located around the world and then tests them at the farms two growing areas. The Goshen area (Goshen Ranches) has about 3,000 contiguous acres which produces later bearing fruit due to its lower elevation than its sister ranch near Kettleman City in Kings County at a higher elevation.

The groundwater level at the Kettleman site is about 1,000 feet deep. The wells were dug at 2,000 feet.

The two operations allow the Jacksons to produce tree fruit to create a longer marketing season which can help bring better pricing. 

As a result, Jackson shared with Western Farm Press, “We are always reinventing ourselves and we change over about 15 percent of our varieties every year into new varieties.

Flavor and value 

There are two keys to new variety selection – flavor and production value.

“Flavor is King,” Jackson emphasized. “We are looking for a good eating experience for our customers, plus trees and fruit which are profitable to grow.”

The research center has a wall of refrigerated coolers with fruit inside to determine the shelf life before fruit taste is affected.

“The research side helps us make better decisions as a company and keeps ourselves fresh and re-inventing ourselves. It staves off the tendency to grow stale in your company.”

Despite water, labor, and many other challenges, Jackson enjoys the tree fruit business.

“Farming is great and it is different every day. My Dad always told me that ‘if you don’t want any bruises then don’t get in the battle.’”

Jackson added, “Farming is not an occupation for the faint hearted. If farming was easy then everyone would farm. It’s something that can bring you success but it’s also where you can lose a large amount of money in a short period of time.”

Jackson’s positive attitude makes him bullish about agriculture’s future.

“I am excited as ever about agriculture. There are so many opportunities in our industry. Even though there are big challenges, there is nothing that can’t be overcome,” he concluded.

Indeed, the future of agriculture is in good hands.

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