By Maureen Buscher-Dang
Heith Baughman is competitive, anxious to learn, willing to try something new and committed to working hard to succeed.
The Kern County agribusiness man, who grew up in Arvin, where his family has lived since the Dust Bowl days, was featured last month in Western Farm Press for his use of cutting-edge systems to irrigate his block of almond trees, northwest of Bakersfield. He also has been recognized for his creation of a successful custom harvesting business.
In the mid-1990s, Baughman was an offensive tackle for USC, playing on a full scholarship, when he blew out both of his knees.
“I was trying to figure out what to do,” Baughman recalled during a recent interview. “When the dairies started coming to Kern County I realized I had an opportunity.”
Having watched his dad and grandfather work in the harvesting business, Baughman loaded up his clothes, told his apartment manager to give everything away, and headed back home. Fortunately, with the backing of his family, plus financial support from a local dairy family, he was able to start his custom harvesting business.
“I didn’t know a whole lot about the business, but it was just a matter of learning and working my butt off,” Baughman said. “Failure is never an option. When you have to succeed, you will find a way.”
When Baughman started HB Ag Inc. in 1996, he drove the harvester. As the business found its footing, both his mother and father joined the effort and they remain more than two decades later.
“There are people smarter than me out there, but no one will work harder than me,” said Baughman, adding that “everything we made we put back into the business.”
By 2003, Baughman’s interest also turned to growing.
“I always wanted to be a farmer, but never had the resources before. A lot of farmers I know from my harvesting business were talking about almonds and how they were a pretty good investment. I was fortunate to meet a couple of guys who became my mentors in the almond deal,” he said.
“I bought an almond ranch and literally knew nothing about almonds,” said Baughman. “I had a consultant, who I would call three or four times a day and would drive him crazy. Luckily, I had a few other growers, who would help me, too. They all helped me succeed.”
Along the way, it has not always been smooth sailing. A few years ago, Baughman detected his trees were becoming stressed. Advisors determined they were suffering from Alternaria leaf spot, a fungus that appears as a large, brown spot on leaves. If severe, it can lead to nearly complete defoliation by early summer.
“I didn’t know what Alternaria was,” said Baughman, adding that he soon learned it could be caused by overwatering. Baughman turned a laser-focus on the problem, which led to the use of sophisticated systems that monitor irrigation. The systems have not only curbed the disease, they have reduced Baughman’s use of water and pumping costs.
It’s just part of Baughman’s obsession with seeking out the best practices and best consultants to operate his agribusinesses.
“I’m the kind of person who’s bought a lot of ground over the last few years. I’ll set a deal up with a grower and I ask what they want. Some want a 30 day deal. I don’t want to go back to the grower and tell him we can’t do the deal,” said Baughman.
Baughman met his future wife Denise at Mission Bank and, after the two were married, moved his business accounts there.
Denise no longer works at the bank. Instead, she handles the farming side of HB Ag Inc. and Baughman’s mother handles the custom harvesting side.
“My focus is to thrive,” Baughman said. “I’m trying to be the best businessman I can; the best family man; and the best father to my two kids.”
Maureen Buscher-Dang is a Bakersfield public relations consultant.