From the Farmer's Tractor
June 11, 2015
Joe Turkovich, 58, of Joe Turkovich Farms is a prune, walnut and field crop farmer based in the southern Sacramento valley near the town of Winters, between San Francisco and Sacramento. Prunes (dried plums) are his main crop and he markets them through a 98-year old grower owned cooperative, Sunsweet Growers Inc., where Turkovich is also on the board of directors.
How did you get into farming? How long have you been a grower?
My father’s dream was to own a farm. My parents found and bought a small prune farm and moved the family (5 kids) from the SF bay area when I was 4 years old. Every family member helped out to get the farm going. After a few years away at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo (where I got my BS in Ag Business Management) and a few years working for an almond, pistachio and raisin packer/marketer in Bakersfield and Fresno, I returned to work with my parents, slowly taking over the operation. I’ve raised quite a few different crops over the years: almonds, apricots, peaches and kiwifruit to name a few. I moved away from those crops as economic conditions slowly changed. Apart from almonds, those crops require a large amount of hand labor and/or chemical inputs. Foreign producers became more competitive and captured most of the business. Farmers here migrated into crops that produce more consistent crops with lower labor inputs, such as walnuts and prunes.
How have your growing practices changed over the last 10 years?
There’s much more government oversight and regulations that affect my business. Food quality concerns about chemical use led to the development of softer insect control materials and a better understanding of biological systems. I take advantage of my knowledge of insect and natural predator relations and often forego pesticide applications. Occupational safety issues created the need for improved employee safety training. Air quality concerns led to regulating of how we dispose of orchard prunings – we burn less brush now, shredding orchard clippings and putting the clippings back into the soil to build it up and improve the soil microbial community. Water quality is the latest big issue. Canal and well water as well as run-off and tail water are regularly tested by the government for chemical and nutrient excesses. Soon, growers will be required to submit management plans to insure that excess applications of nitrogen are not happening.
How will farming evolve in the next five to ten years?
With so much focus on environmental health and ecology, I see the prune industry slowly moving towards the development of varieties and rootstocks that are better able to naturally mine soil nutrients, exhibit growing habits that require less labor to train, and produce fruit that is high in nutrition and able to be processed more efficiently. I’m chairman of the California Dried Plum Board’s production research sub-committee. We sponsor fruit breeding research at the University of California, Davis and one of our principal goals is to develop a prune variety that requires less energy to dry. Prunes are dried in large dehydrators that are essentially large convection ovens. A more efficient variety will reduce the amount natural gas consumed and that translates into less carbon dioxide put into the environment – a win/win for growers and the public.
What is your greatest challenge as a farmer / grower?
Farming is always challenging. It’s a very competitive environment. There’s competition for good farm land. There’s the challenge of navigating the weather and environmental threats presented each year – i.e., frosts, sunburn, storms and now drought. Then there’s the challenge of martialing limited assets to produce the best crop of high quality product at a reasonable cost to allow me to enjoy the farming lifestyle that is so enjoyable.
How does a grower know what a retailer will want a year from now?
The California Dried Plum Board and marketers like Sunsweet do a tremendous amount of consumer research to identify consumer health trends. And then we (the industry) try to tailor our products to match those trends. For example, consumer preferences for increased convenience have led to easy single serve packaging. The current trend of consumer awareness and desire for high nutrition, functional foods have been a perfect match for prunes. There is research that supports prunes having important benefits for bone and digestive health.
What steps are you taking toward conservation in the orchard?
The ongoing drought in California is forcing all growers to be very judicious with water use. We’ve been moving towards more efficient water use for years. On my farm, all of the orchards have been converted to drip and micro irrigation methods. I apply crop nutrients through these systems to conserve and protect from over fertilization. And I utilize non-till soil methods to protect the land from erosion.
Do you sell any of your products locally, and if so, what is the process?
As a member Sunsweet Growers, Inc., a grower-owned cooperative, all of my prunes are delivered to them for distribution throughout the world. Much of it is sold locally in neighborhood markets.
What kinds of reactions do you get from consumers when they meet you in person?
Many people find it hard to believe that I’m a farmer, because they often see me in clean clothes interacting with them in the city or wherever. And honestly, the need to address government regulations has put me behind a desk more than I would like. But believe me, I’ve put my time in sweating through hot, pressure packed harvests. I grew up hoeing weeds around the trees, driving tractors and learning to weld and repair farm equipment. I need to be out in the field as much as possible. It helps keep me literally grounded!