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Kevin Merrill Kevin Merrill
Kevin Merrill stands in a vineyard on his farm in the Santa Ynez Valley, Calif.

Grower keeps the golden dream alive

Kevin Merrill works through changing, challenging times.

California --- officially ‘The Golden State’ since 1968 --- is a bit tarnished with some of the gilt worn off in farm fields over the years.

Home to one out of eight Americans, the state also has nicknames attesting to ‘The Land of Sunshine and Opportunity’ or ‘The Land of Milk and Honey.’  Not so much anymore if you’re a farmer trying to  make a living by growing something there.

To find one voice representing many, we took a state map, tossed a dart at it and discovered Kevin Merrill, a seventh-generation Californian, who has been trying to earn a living farming going on half a century now, following in his grandfather’s footsteps and starting early at a ranch in the Santa Ynez Valley where cattle and sheep prospered under their care. 

Over the years, he and family members have been brave enough to tackle a variety of different crops ranging from alfalfa and tomatoes to sugar beets and walnuts.  And, out of necessity as the various industry variables changed, they changed with the industry modifications, evolving into their current focus on caring for wine grapes. 

“We grew a lot of dry land grain until President Carter put a grain embargo on Russia and killed that market.  We used to grow a bunch of alfalfa and sell it to central coast dairies before that decline.  We grew sugar beets until there was no sugar plant because we couldn’t compete with cane sugar.  We farmed on our own until banks began to charge interest rates above 20 percent.  As land and water prices kept going up, we found ourselves in a position of repeatedly not making any money, so we let our leases go and got out from under a lot of headaches by going to work for someone else.  As times and situations changed, we learned to roll with the punches and make changes of our own where necessary,” he says.

'Need to stay proactive'

“I’ve learned that you really need to stay proactive in whatever crop you’re dealing with and be willing to make modifications as they need to be made because farming has changed so much --- and so fast --- over recent years.  It’s a different ballgame than when I started working crops in the early 1970s while still in high school.

“The agriculture industry has always faced a lot of challenges, but never more so than today.  It’s always been a case of being just a breath or two away from going out of business, but today things are even worse, things are in total flux with farmers barely hanging on.”

Reciting the usual litany of problems running the gamut from a lack of labor to water scarcity and climate issues, Merrill stops at a couple of specifics along the way --- “We’ve got to get a better handle on the labor issue and build a decent immigration policy that’s better than the H-2A system we’re currently using, because it’s terribly expensive.  We definitely need some help in that arena.

“And I’m not sure where we’re headed with water issues and compliance.  For example, in the San Joaquin Valley, if you’re still sending water out to the ocean without filling up the reservoirs and providing needed irrigation for crops, there’s going to be consequences.  These guys currently plowing those West Coast fields can go farm in Chile or Australia or Argentina or wherever.  It’s not necessarily that California is the end-all and be-all to grow things.  If you can’t make any money doing it there, ultimately the industry will phase out, disappear piece-by-piece, until it’s gone.”

Regulatory stringency throughout the state is proving problematic to farmers on a lot of fronts.  “When I arrived in Santa Barbara, environmentalists were up in arms about large wineries chopping down oak trees along the highway and native species like tiger salamanders that were stopping the planting of vineyards on private land.  I had to get involved in these controversies and start pushing back simply to be able to keep on farming.  I became an activist out of necessity and things haven’t let up either.  Regulations have gotten so extreme they’re outlandish, way out of hand, to the point where regulatory compliance is almost putting people out of business."

One issue: Pest control

Take just a single issue --- pest control.  “We’re always on the lookout for the next glassy winged sharpshooter or whatever the next pest will be that’s brought in from another country to start devastating things here.  The flip side of that pest control coin is all the regulations involving chemicals that work in dealing with these pests --- what are we left with in the toolbox to fight that fight?  While the chem Industry can work closely with giants like the corn and soy bean growers in the Midwest, grape growers in California, as an industry, don’t represent a huge profit for the chemical companies, so it’s a difficult and slow process to get anything new approved through the EPA, and that’s a concern.  We can’t deal with bugs if there aren’t the appropriate tools in the tool box to do so.”

Ever the optimist, Merrill says that while California farming is totally different from what he grew up with 50 years ago, working both harder and smarter are still keys to success.  “I don’t think most years are the same as others in this industry, so you can’t get complacent.  You don’t use standard recipes from a cookbook in farming because the recipes in that book get rewritten every year.”

Mesa Vineyard Management is a Merrill family affair, a full-service management firm for large commercial operations and highly-specialized ultra-premium vineyards, founded in 1989 with brother Dana Merrill, a Cal Poly Ag Business graduate, as president.  MVM is a regional leader in developing new growing techniques and is a certified sustainable farm with wine grapes available from the family’s 96-acre Pomar Junction Vineyard.

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