Choosing tractors over suits and ties, a new generation of local farmers is bucking the state trend by entering an increasingly graying field.
In California, fewer young people enter into production agriculture today than in years past, making the average age of farmers in the state just older than 56, according to the U.S. Census of Agriculture for 2002, the most recent study available.
"There is a bit of a generation gap," said Lora Sotelo, the media assistant for the California Farm Bureau Federation.
It's a costly profession to enter, which is the major obstacle barring young people from the field, said Mick Canevari, the county director and farm adviser for the UC Davis Extension Center in San Joaquin County. Because of the high costs to start up a farm, many people entering the field choose different parts of agriculture such as sales and plan on returning to production agriculture when they're older and can afford it, said Sarah Mora, the state coordinator of the Young Farmers and Ranchers program.
"A young person could just not go to the bank and pull out a loan and start farming 500 acres," Canevari said. "You have to be born into it, marry into it or work your way slowly into it."
But as changes in technology increasingly creep in and alter the methods farmers have been using for years, many believe that the Millennial Generation's skills are in high demand. Sprayers and tractors are now operated by computers, and satellite systems can eliminate the guesswork from land leveling and irrigation.
"It almost takes the mind of a young person brought up in the technology of today to understand that technology," Canevari said. "The older generation doesn't understand that very well."
He said keeping the young generation interested in farming is vital to ensure that California keeps its competitive edge in agriculture. Currently, California is the biggest agriculture-producing state in the United States, and its production numbers rival that of some countries.
"I don't believe we're going to stay competitive in agriculture unless we use the tech that's available and put it into practice," Canevari said. "If we don't have the young generation entering agriculture, I question whether we will have agriculture in the future. So it's really important that we embrace the enthusiasm and keep them involved."
Four young farmers in Lodi shared their stories with the News-Sentinel.
Joe Cataldo, 24, cherry grower
Just one day before his finals at California State University, Fresno, then 21-year-old Joe Cataldo heard the news: his father had died of a heart attack.
Cataldo, now 24, had planned to take a common route for young people entering agriculture - he'd work in sales for several years until he earned enough money to purchase his own land, and then he'd return to the production side.
But after his father's unexpected death, he found his life fast-forwarded by several scenes when the responsibility of managing his family's 120-acre cherry orchard fell to him.
"It was kind of an obligation, but a good obligation," Cataldo said. "My ultimate goal was to come back to the farm."
After he took control of the family farm, he commuted to Fresno for six semesters to finish three semesters' worth of classes, and he graduated this spring. He couldn't break away from his responsibilities long enough to walk in the commencement ceremony, but he said he's OK with that. He's passionately devoted to farming as a lifestyle.
"We're one of the last guys around here," Cataldo said, with a glance at the cemetery across the street from his cherry orchard on Beckman Road. "But it's my heritage. I worked at it as a choice.
"I mean, I could be in San Diego surfing right now."
Brandon Sywassink, foreman at Manna Ranch Acampo Ag Service
Like many young farmers, 24-year-old Brandon Sywassink was pulled to the industry by his memory of his first time on a tractor. But for Sywassink, that experience happened as a freshman at San Joaquin Delta College.
His friend, Matt Manna, asked Sywassink to help him move a couple tractors just a mile down the road, and he knew from that moment that this was the career for him.
"I felt like a little boy on Christmas, I just got a new toy," he recalled.
A rookie among an industry filled with lifers, Sywassink is often teased by his co-workers.
"He didn't even know what color dirt was," joked Mike Manna, Sywassink's boss at Manna Ranch Acampo Ag Service.
Now a foreman at Manna Ranch, Sywassink is in charge of trucking - although he'd never driven a truck until he started in this business. He trades his enthusiasm for newer techniques, such as mapping out fields using Global Positioning System, for the wisdom and experiences of the veterans.
He's caught on quickly to the career he stumbled into six years ago, and he's thankful he took the time to help out a friend that day.
"It was just a favor," Sywassink said with a shrug. "It turned into a career."
Matt Manna, foreman for Manna Ranch Acampo Ag Service
Third-generation farmer Mike Manna was excited for his son Matt to come back home from Fresno State, assuming his workload would decrease with his son helping in the business, growing grapes, apples, cherries and walnuts. That didn't exactly happen.
"I don't think I have worked this hard in quite a few years," Mike Manna said. "Every day is some new idea that he's thought about or seen in a magazine. He's always got that next brainstorm."
Matt Manna, 24, never imagined himself as anything other than a farmer, the business his family has been in since 1906. He earned a degree in agricultural business from Fresno State in 2004, and he came back to his father's farm armed with ideas for new techniques. He's now a foreman for Manna Ranch Acampo Ag Service, and he's enthusiastic about his position. But some older farmers are skeptical of some of his suggestions.
"A lot of old-timers are set in their ways," Matt Manna said. "They think the new techniques are crazy."
His proudest moment so far? He recently convinced an experienced farmer to monitor the moisture levels in the soil of his vineyard by computer readings.
"He told me that was crazy," Manna said. "He said he could tell just by looking."
But often, farmers are more apt to try a new idea suggested by Matt, rather than his dad. "People are more open-eared to the younger generation than they are to the 45- to 60-year-olds," said Mike Manna, who's 54.
In the middle of discussing his career as a farmer, Matt steps away to take a business phone call.
"I need the sprayers to go up to the apples later tonight," he said. His father watches Matt work, shakes his head and says again, "I haven't worked this hard in years."
Matt and Evonne Shinn, owners of 56 acres of farmland
By farming standards, Matt Shinn and his wife, Evonne, are two very accomplished 20-somethings.
Just three years after graduating from Fresno State in 2004, the Shinns bought their first piece of property, and since then they've acquired two ranches, or 56 acres of land, on which they grow winegrapes.
The couple knows most of the younger farmers in the area, but they don't know of anyone else their age who can afford to purchase their own property. Matt Shinn, 28, earned money by buying doing custom work, and Evonne Shinn, also 28, added her income as a third grade teacher at Victor School.
Besides the owning land part, Matt Shinn doesn't think his generation is very different from the older farmers.
"I wouldn't say that we're all that different," said Matt Shinn. But he added, "They have more money than I do."
In college, he remembers a friend who changed his major from agricultural business because it looked too hard to break into. With that in mind, Matt Shinn said he's been blessed.
"Thinking back, it doesn't seem like it was so hard," Shinn said. "Everything just fell into place."
First published: Friday, July 14, 2006