There are years of drought and years of pounding rain. One year, crop prices can soar and the next, they can crash. And the government? Well, sometimes it’s really not there to help.
The life of a farmer is not easy. But if you ask Garry Richardson, he will assure you that it is rewarding.
With his two sons, Kyle and Eric, Garry farms in the Mettler area, south of Bakersfield. Garry Richardson Farms is comprised of 900 acres of late-season stone fruit, 580 of those acres are peach orchards. About six years ago, he added two varieties of clementines, a hybrid between mandarin and sweet orange, to his farms.
The family also operates Rich-Pak, a Bakersfield grower, packer and shipper of San Joaquin Valley clementines.
Garry has been farming his entire life. He followed in the footsteps of his parents, Dalton and Rosalie Richardson, who, in 1965, moved their young family from Santa Ana to Kern County to begin growing table grapes and early stone fruit.
After graduating from Arvin High School, Garry started brush shredding with Sunrise Sprayers in 1979 and began farming on his own in 1985. Back then, there were 30 stone fruit growers in Kern County. Today, there are about four.
“A lot of people have come in and gone out of this business,” said Garry, adding with a slight laugh that he regards himself as a survivor. “I love what I do. I’m the only fall peach guy around.”
He says he is also “proud of not being broke and still being in business.” But that is not an accomplishment that he takes for granted. It is one that can be credited to his sound farming skills and to his loyal “partners,” which include his banker, Rob Hallum at Bakersfield-based Mission Bank.
“To do this, you have to have a bank that understands your challenges and potential,” Garry said. “Most banks figure you can have one bad year. The big problem is that we can have multiple good and multiple bad years.
“Rob and Mission’s board understand that. They’re a smaller, community bank. Their feet and ears are a little closer to the ground. They’re in it for the long haul,” he said. “They have integrity. They will tell you what they can do and then they will do it. They are honest and fair.”
“Agriculture comprises a large share of Mission’s portfolio,” Hallum said. “As such, it is critical that bankers understand the industry and farmers’ needs. It is important to go out to farms; understand what it takes to make them successful. You can’t be a ‘partner’ in this unique and challenging industry unless you understand and appreciate it.”
“It’s all about ‘relationship banking,’ which places a priority on providing a wide range of high-quality-services to local businesses,” said A.J. Antongiovanni, Mission Bank’s president and chief executive officer, who credits Mission’s yearslong profitability to the “personal touches” it provides.
“In addition to providing traditional services, such as taking deposits, cashing checks, opening new accounts, sending wire transfers and researching account issues, Mission’s bankers frequently go to a customer’s location to conduct business, rather than having them come to the bank,” Antongiovanni said.
While optimistic about the future of farming in Kern County, Garry notes there are many challenges on the horizon.
“Labor is going to be an issue for most farmers,” Garry predicted.
But he notes that some farmers are heading off the problem by turning to crops such as almonds and pistachios, which are less labor-intensive because harvesting is becoming more mechanized.
“And while this winter’s rains have eased the drought that gripped California for the past several years, having adequate water supplies will continue to be a challenge for farmers. The state has to do something about water storage and management,” Garry said. “If regulators ration water supplies, crops such as stone fruit, which require a lot of water, will be affected.”
With the help of his sons, Kyle, who focuses on ranch management, and Eric, who oversees the sales department, Garry is keeping a close eye on these challenges, as well as the farming opportunities that he is sure are still in Kern County’s future.
— Maureen Buscher-Dang is a Bakersfield public relations consultant.