Three generations of strong leadership by the McFarlane family at their farm operation based at Clovis, Calif. (Fresno County) has led to good years of farming citrus, almonds, and other crops, and the betterment of California agriculture.
The family’s agricultural focus has always been on production with an even stronger emphasis today on improved crop quality.
Third-generation grower James McFarlane shared his family’s proud history and plans for the future during a mid-June interview at the farm office, a picturesque farming Mecca surrounded by sweet smelling citrus orchards plus younger almond plantings.
Today, the McFarlane operation - Redbanks Farming, Inc. - includes about 1,860 acres of mostly citrus and almonds on two ranches – the home Clovis Ranch and the Academy Ranch - located east of Clovis and north of Sanger, respectively - about three miles apart as the crow flies.
The family’s primary crops once were raisin grapes, cotton, corn, grains, and seed crops. Today, production primarily focuses on citrus and almonds. Acreage wise, citrus is king as the No. 1 crop covering 560 acres – mostly mid-season Navel oranges (primarily the Washington and Atwood varieties) and late-season Navels, plus Valencia, Tangelo, and Mandarin fruit.
The McFarlane farm includes 410 acres of almonds with the first trees planted nearly 70 years ago. The most recent almond plantings include 100 acres planted both in 2016 and 2017. Now bearing are 60 acres planted in 2013 and 30 acres planted in 2011.
Varieties include Nonpareil, plus the pollinators Aldrich, Sonora, Monterey, and Wood Colony.
The operation also includes 32 acres of alfalfa. As James said, “We may add dryland oats until the developers arrive,” noting the rapid-growing urban influence of the greater Fresno area on the family’s farms.
The family also owns more than 660 acres in Butte County custom farmed in rice.
James is the third generation patriarch who serves as the farm’s general manager. With his sisters, Sayre Miller and Jane Gamble, they manage the cutting edge crop operation.
The McFarlane operation began almost a century ago (1920) when James “Frank” McFarlane decided to get his hands dirty in the soil to grow food and fiber. About 30 years later, Frank shared the farming reins with his son William “Bill.” The father and son’s operation was called McFarlane and McFarlane.
Between the two, strong leadership and vision laid a firm foundation for the farm’s future, notes James (Bill’s son). He says his father had several farming mantras which included - “Production is king” – “Good production will get you through the tough times” – and “You can never have too much water.” Bill passed away in 2012.
It would be interesting to gain Bill’s take on the recent five years of California drought followed by the ample, historic rains and snow this past fall, winter, and spring.
James remembers his father spending a lot of time off the farm. Bill shared his talents with agricultural associations, including the Central California Almond Growers Association (CCAGA) where he was a founding member and served as the first board chair for about 30 years.
He also dedicated his time as board chairman of Blue Diamond and Calcot.
The saying “Like father like son” certainly runs true in the McFarlane family. James recently completed his second-year term as CCAGA’s board chair, plus serves on the California Citrus Mutual Board and on the California Citrus Pest and Disease Prevention Committee.
The latter two groups are working extremely hard to find ways to ward off the deadly citrus tree disease Huanglongbing, plus other pest and disease threats and issues.
James goes industrial
While Bill and his foreman Clarke “Corky” Dunbar focused on the farm, James earned degrees in economics and industrial engineering at Stanford University and was a catcher on the school's baseball team.
After college, Bill encouraged James to work off the farm for a while as there wasn’t a full-time position available for him. So James went to work at Grundfos Pumps in Clovis, and was promoted to company positions in Pennsylvania and later at Grundfos’ company headquarters in Denmark.
In 1991, James came back to the farm and worked first as a bookkeeper with the McFarlane family in a joint farming effort on the Westside. In 1995, he came back to the home farm full time when that operation was sold.
With James and his sisters at the farming helm, they’ve implemented three farming practices to improve productivity and quality, including new pruning strategies. While the family previously never pruned its citrus trees, citrus is now, ironically, pruned more than the almond trees.
“After assessing the effects of the previous year’s cuts we prune our citrus trees about once a year,” James said. “If we topped the citrus tree last year, we may focus on internal tree pruning the next season.”
Topping and internal pruning are never done in the same year in citrus.
“We keep a schedule of our citrus pruning for the last 10 years,” James explained. “If we lay production records side by side then we can see what has worked and what hasn’t.”
In almonds, the McFarlane’s and many other growers have traditionally pruned trees on the heavier side based on University of California (UC) recommendations. Those UC recommendations have changed in recent years. Today, less tree pruning is considered better.
“Our farm’s overall pruning standards have slowly evolved to more minimal pruning as recommended by the university,” McFarlane explained.
The primaries are tipped in the first leaf, but McFarlane is making far fewer thinning cuts compared to previous pruning to eliminate competition with the primaries.
“On our second-leaf plantings, we’re not pruning at all. We do not tip our secondaries to promote tertiaries like we used to do. We just let them go.”
No irrigation garbage
The McFarlane’s typically spend a combined $1,200 per acre annually on bees for pollination, fertilizer, and pest control in almonds.
“You have all this money invested in the trees but if you irrigate them incorrectly you might as well throw it in the garbage,” McFarlane said.
An outside company helps the McFarlanes irrigate better, including the use of neutron probe sites in most orchards and in some cases two probes in larger blocks. During the summer months, an accurate soil moisture report is generated weekly to gain an accurate reading.
“There’s no guess work. We know the evaporation rates, utilize CIMIS weather system data, and crop co-efficient. I think we do a good job keeping the blocks near 90 percent of field capacity most of the time,” he said.
“Our PCAs and crop consultants say our first- and second-leaf trees are growing great. I have not seen our trees look as good in their youth as I’m seeing now. I think our irrigation management program is a major reason why.”
Redbanks Farming is fairly aggressive in fertilizer use. If there is any doubt whether the trees need another shot of fertilizer James will ‘pull the trigger.’
“I sleep a lot better at night by giving the tree fertilizer instead versus not spending the money for it.”
He acknowledges that heavier fertilizer is not always best. Experience has taught him that too much fertilizer can negatively impact trees, especially in Clementine’s.
James looks at fertilization like an investment in raising children.
“It doesn’t mean spoil them, but treat them like a professional athlete who eats healthy food at the training table for a reason,” said James, the former college catcher. “Athletes don’t go to McDonalds much. There is a reason they are on specific nutrition programs to generate peak performance. The same is true to grow healthy trees. ”
Under the guidance of a trusted consultant, the McFarlane’s write their own citrus fertilization program using the basic formulations – CAN-17, UN-32, 10-34-0, and muriate of potash.
On the almond side, Helena Chemical provides the annual fertilizer prescription, using N-P-K blends plus humic acid. The blend is a little heavier in phosphate and potassium early in the season (March through May).