American agriculture is unmatched around the world. Yet with this success comes an even greater challenge: Who will replace the half-million farmers and ranchers who plan to retire over the next two decades? Look no further than our next class of America's Best Young Farmers and Ranchers. They are among the best of their generation. They embrace the future of agriculture and are developing the technical and managerial skills to build their own successful businesses.
It is in California's thirsty Kettleman Hills that J.R. Shannon finds his inspiration. The 1,200-foot domes of cool season grasses and rocks rich with fossils rise along the western edge of the San Joaquin Valley. Winters are cold. Summer days top 100 degrees F. Rain gauges might collect a half-dozen inches of rain in a year. Carlton James Shannon, J.R.'s great grandfather found a vision for farming, there.
C.J. Shannon, as he was know journeyed from Ireland to California to cultivate crops and raise cattle. "It was a desert, but he had a vision that it could be fertile farm ground and he turned it into fertile farm ground," says J.R. He looks heavenward for just a moment to catch a memory of the man he reveres. "He's what took our family and made it what it is today."
J.R. and C.J. often took Sunday drives around the ranch–the older man taking the measure of the teen behind the wheel of the truck. "When I was 16, the last thing I wanted to do was be a farmer, to be honest. But those moments driving around with my great grandfather, the stories he told me, the lessons he taught me, that's what changed my mind," J.R. says. "Those were probably some of the most educational moments of my life."
The Shannon family's S-K Ranch Management, LLC and CRS Farming is headquartered at Visalia in Tulare County, 50 miles east of the Kettlemans. Tulare is among the nation's most, if not the most productive county. In 2015, it rang up $6.9 billion in farm sales. The Shannons manage wine and table grapes, citrus, walnuts, almonds, corn, beans, wheat, onions, garlic and cotton. A 250-head Angus and Angus-cross operation produces 650-pound market steers and heifers. S-K Ranch also manages a wholesale chemical business. J.R. farms with his grandfather, father and two brothers.
Orchard and vine crops are high cost, high-risk investments. J.R. waits three years for his mandarin orange trees to produce their first substantial crop. Almond trees and grapes mature for five seasons. Land is pricey–from $6,000 an acre to nearly $40,000 an acre for almond groves with good water.
The climate allows J.R. to mine value from the ranch's fertile soils 365 days a year. "We truly have a special place," says J.R.
Three management principles run through the Shannon operations. First, J.R. works to capture the highest value from his output. Second, the ranch is intentionally–and widely–diverse. Third, water management is key to everything.
J.R. rebuilt the ranch's cattle operation to capture unrealized income from the family's field crops. "[The beef] brings flexibility to move corn silage, our wheat silage and bean straw to feed our own cattle instead of dumping it onto the market place at an unprofitable price," J.R. says "Before we had only one outlet, it had to go to dairy. Now if pricing isn't there, we can shift it over to this operation."
The family is discussing the purchase of a walnut dryer. The gas-fired, computer controlled system senses humidity and temperature to produce a higher quality nut. "How can we capture the best quality?" J.R. asks. "We can do that with the ability to dry the nuts and get a better price for better quality. Quality in tough times is where you can make up for lower prices."
S-K Ranch is obviously diverse. "Hopefully if one commodity is off, one of the others will make up the difference," J.R. says. He has made a recent, long-term play to deflect potential disaster–and capture new opportunity.
A disease called Huanglongbing (HLB) or citrus greening disease has been found in California. The disease is spread by the Asian citrus psyllid as it feeds on citrus tree leaves. It has no cure.
J.R. planted a 200-acre block of kiwifruit, a crop not susceptible to the disease. "I wanted to have something different in case that happened," he says. J.R. has hooked up with a marketing partner for the three-inch long kiwifruit. High in potassium and vitamin C, it could become a daily staple for all the health benefits it provides. But even more says J.R., "I looked at the kiwifruit as another leg to add to our diversification. I needed to step into this for the betterment of my future."
The California water scene is a mess and the state is moving to regulate ground water. With that on the horizon, the land market is in disarray as are most expansion plans. "It's a little scary because we don't know what the rules will be like in 4 to 5 years," J.R. says.
The family is focused on water conservation. Water is metered through micro-irrigation drip and sprinkler systems and monitored with soil probes. The ranch is swapping furrow irrigation practices for micro-irrigation in its older orchards.
"Today," he tells a visitor, "we set up infrared cameras to read the stress of trees and vines, to determine when we should irrigate." Smartfield, Inc., Lubbock, Texas, was installing its FIT system to measure the temperature of the tree canopy. "We're trying to determine the optimal temperature of the plant, find its happy spot," says J.R.
Carlton James Shannon sparks J.R.'s doggedness. "When I look at an opportunity, and I have a vision for it–maybe it doesn't look right," says J.R. "[But] I think back to what he turned that desert into. In my heart, if I stay focused, I know I can make anything happen."
J.R. believes his great grandfather would be pleased. "I think he would say I'm leaving this operation in great hands. Keep up the good work. Keep the vision alive."