Blogging from Fresno, CA
Since first hearing the song "I Heard it Through the Grapevine," I've been fascinated with the dancing raisins. I swore that one day I would go and interview the people with the raisins. As luck would have it, a trip to Fresno, CA and the raisin capital of the world was in store!
My friend Dave Silvas from Jamie’s Flooring in Fresno said his friend Roger Moles had a good-sized ranch and he thought Roger would talk to me. We jumped in the car and were off to visit Roger. His farm had miles and miles of grapes weighing on the vines, and Dave says they're just about ready to be picked. I’m amazed at how beautiful they were — golden in color. First thing about Roger was his enthusiasm for what he was doing, even though he was on crutches. I asked how it happened (thinking it was a farming accident) but Roger laughed and said it was a motorcycle accident. At least he has time to play!
Roger is the Foreman of Tri City Farms, which is owned by Roger’s family. I started thinking, why, in 2008, does anyone become a farmer? My grandfather was a fruit farmer — he worried about the trees "morning, noon and night" as mother used to say. Between the bugs, cost of fertilizer and getting the apples and cherries picked, it was a family affair. I spent my summers on the farm and I too loved the trees, the smell of the apple blossoms and was in awe of the blossoms turning into apples. I wondered if farmers in 2008 felt the same way.
LC: Why does anyone go into this business?
Roger: A love of the earth, the land and of course the grapes. The beauty of the grapes, watching them grow and how beautiful they are on the vines. Things that can’t be controlled. As with any other business, to make money. This is work on a margin of 20-40% depending on the yield. There is also my love of the grapes; touching them. Our farm is 2800 acres yielding about 2-2 ½ tons of grapes per acres. Volume is about 8 million dollars. The big problem is we only get paid once a year! Of course there’s the flexibility of being your own boss although this is a 24 hour a day business. Worrying about people stealing your plants straight out of the field.
LC: How do you keep the trees healthy?
Roger: Trees are like raising a child, the key is to keep the child healthy. Good fertilizer, keep away the bugs and love the plants. We try to fertilize them every year and invest part of our profits back into the soil. This way when profits aren’t high we can skip a couple years.
LC: How important is the organic market?
Roger: We are seeing amazing growth in the organic market, particularly overseas. The green market includes organic almonds and olives. It seems to be growing overseas faster then in the states. It is more difficult to grow organic because of stricter regulations, no pesticides and natural fertilizer. If the bugs get us then we have less of a yield and less money.
LC: What is the secret to making money?
Roger: Part of it is being vertically integrated. Picking, packing, trucking and being big enough to take care of everything. Also you have to watch the bottom line, what is everything costing, keeping the costs in line. Fertilizer costs more these days and of course gas continues to go up so that delivery costs more.
Roger tells me he and his staff repair all equipment, including their trucks. They are building a packing plant so they don’t have to sell to packers — another middleman. This way they can also pack for others. At this point they also haul for other ranchers.
As with many other businesses, the economy has a lot to do with how much money they make. Many products are sweetened with grape juice at another place for their products.
Also, it’s taking care of your employees — you have to depend on your pickers, a tough job with few benefits, but you teach them how to take their money and provide a good working environment so that they want to stay with you. These days the picking is done by machines.
Like a flooring business, the bottom line is key as is investing in the business. When times are good it’s important to invest in it. Invest in improvements in your buildings and your equipment as well as your employees. Take care of your products, look for new markets.
Now comes the best part: tasting the raisins. There's chocolate covered, candy covered and just plain raisins. Off I go, bags packed with raisins and a new appreciation for someone’s love of their business.
If you’re into raisins, how can you skip Sun Maid? Sun Maid is a cooperative composed of 1500 growers. I know when I think of buying raisins I think of buying Sun Maid and the little girl on the label. What I find out from Sun Maid is that raisins go back to 2000 years ago in Greece and the Roman empire. They were brought to California in the 1800s where the industry flourished. The secret to “raising raisins,” again, is the “farmer’s footprint”: water, love, nutrients, the vines and fertilizer. I guess the secret to any business is paying attention. The Joaquin Valley is perfect for farming and boasts all kinds of fruits.
According to Sun Maid, raisins contain antioxidants, fiber and also help lower your cholesterol. In addition to a wonderful video from Sun Maid, I was sent a Mind, Body, Spirit and fitness tape designed to get me in shape in 4 weeks so I can be “Bikini Ready.” Have you ever thought of pairing your business with a fitness club? Any association is possible.
Now, I’m off to the treadmill while I listen to my fitness tape from the Sun Maid people.