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Roden Farms: Family first for multi-generational California pistachio, beef operations

Roden Farms
Sharon Roden, center, with nephew Mathew Roden, left, and brother Billy Roden, are part of a larger family unit that grows pistachios and raises beef in western Kern County, Calif.
Sharon Roden rose quickly among the ranks to become the first woman to chair the American Pistachio Growers, but that doesn't deter her from firm commitments to family and Roden Farms

It doesn’t take long before a conversation with Sharon Roden turns to family matters. As passionate as the sixth generation San Joaquin Valley farmer is about growing pistachios, family tops the list. Farming and family are very much interconnected.

Farming for the Roden family began with a homestead about a mile east of where the Pacific and North American tectonic plates create a large seam in the earth that she jokes could one day give them beachfront property. The hillsides formed by the San Andreas Fault provide pasture for the family’s beef herd, while the eastern flank, where those hills flatten onto the Valley floor, serve to grow their pistachios.

Roden grows several hundred acres of pistachios west of Lost Hills, along the western flank of the San Joaquin Valley. The family planted their first 220 acres of pistachios there in 1983, and they’ve sustainably added acreage since then. They also manage pistachios owned by Setton Farms at the same location. Roden’s pistachios are processed by Setton Farms at Terra Bella.

Sharon’s brother, Bill Roden, manages the cattle ranching operations, while Sharon focuses on the pistachios. Her nephew, Mathew, splits his time between the livestock and the pistachios.

“He gets spread pretty thin between my brother and me,” she says.

Mathew’s wife, Jennifer, helps with the ranching, and Sharon’s niece, Christina Borchard, is the bookkeeper for ranching and farming operations. “Bill’s wife, Karen, takes care of all of us — whether it’s providing meals in the field or taking care of all the youngsters so the rest of us can get our fieldwork done,” Sharon says.

When she was first asked to join the family farm, she was wrapping up her agricultural management studies at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, with thoughts of moving on to law school. When her parents asked if she’d like to join the family farm, “I couldn’t think of anything better,” she says.

Pistachio Leadership

Earlier this year, Sharon was elected by her peers to chair the American Pistachio Growers trade association — the first-ever appointment of a woman to lead the board of directors for the voluntary organization that markets U.S.-grown pistachios around the globe.

Her rise to leadership of an organization that boasts a membership of over 600 growers and processors in California, Arizona, and New Mexico was rapid. She was first elected to the board in 2014. She was a graduate of the organization’s inaugural leadership program in 2011. The LeadOn Program is a year-long opportunity to train new leaders in the pistachio industry.

Roden is one of the newest members on the board of directors, though she served on the nutrition committee for a time at the insistence of former board chairman Brian Blackwell. Committees advise the board, but their members don’t serve on the board.

“I didn’t seek, nor was it expected that I would be vice chairman last year under Jimi Valov,” she said. “That was not on my radar.” The request by fellow board members to consider serving as board chair was an honor she does not take lightly. “I take it very seriously,” she says, “because I respect the people who make those decisions.”

The leadership program gave her an immediate taste of industry issues, and an introduction to those involved in those issues. “When you’re around people you enjoy working with, it gets you excited about participating,” she says.

Roden believes she is in good company on the board of directors —  industry leaders who have either served there or simply given much time and energy to an industry that two years ago came close to its first ever billion-pound crop, and may well hit that milestone at the end of this growing season.

Assessment Elimination

One of the first decisions made by the APG board after Valov passed the gavel to Roden during last year’s annual meeting was to fulfill a promise the organization made to processors when APG first began about a decade ago: to eliminate the assessment processors were asked to contribute as the fledgling organization started its journey.

The goal was to eventually allow the trade association to stand on its own through grower assessments, though many of the member processors are also growers. “I don’t know of any other industry in which there is a more symbiotic relationship between processors and growers,” she says.

Roden says she learned much from watching Valov chair the meetings, and from others like former chairmen Jim Zion and Brian Blackwell, as well as others who formerly or currently serve on the board over the years.

“As a newbie in many ways,” the trust placed in her to chair the board is something not lost on her, she says. “I can’t help but feel honored, because I know there are a lot of people with more experience than I have.”

With that trust and responsibility, she began immediately changing a few things at the board level that she believes will help the organization.

Awareness of issues

For instance, she believes mixing up committee memberships a bit, and requiring committee alternates to attend all committee meetings, will be helpful, if for nothing else than making the alternates aware of issues and discussions at the committee level. Roden admits the process of moving people around on the various committees was as much a learning process for her as it was the committee members.

APG currently has seven committees: finance, membership services, marketing communications, nutrition, government policies and partnerships, LeadOn leadership program, and executive committee. The organization is currently staffed by 13 people, including Executive Director Richard Matoian.

Of the committees that advise the board, she sees the nutrition committee as a strong point of the organization for the information that is shared publicly about the health benefits of eating American pistachios. “She wants active and engaged involvement in our committees,” Matoian says.

Roden was a tenacious defender of the American pistachio industry during the sunset review hearings before the International Trade Commission last spring, Matoian says. Those hearings were held to reconsider an anti-dumping duty order by the ITC on imports of raw in-shell pistachios from Iran. In the end, the U.S. industry won a continuation of the anti-dumping order after successfully arguing that to revoke the order would materially harm the U.S. industry.

Aside from its heart health status by the American Heart Association, pistachios have been shown to effectively manage blood sugar in pregnant women. A scientific study released last fall revealed that women with gestational diabetes can control their blood sugar with a moderate diet of pistachios.

Pistachios can have other benefits as well, she says, sharing an account of being on a road trip to Mississippi when she discovered the lights weren’t working on the trailer she was towing. Stopping at a garage in a small Arizona town, the owner said he’d have to evaluate the lights in the morning since it was getting late and he needed to get home to celebrate his wedding anniversary with his wife.

Sharon thanked him for his time and handed him a bag of pistachios, a gesture that not only surprised the station owner, but caused him to change his mind and repair the lights that evening. He first called his wife and told her he was going to be about an hour late, but that he had a surprise for her that wouldn’t be ready until then — she just had to trust him.

When the job was finished, Sharon paid the bill and gave the man three bags of pistachios. As it turned out, the man’s wife loves pistachios and wasn’t able to find them at their local store.

Growing Pistachios

Growing pistachios where she does in the San Joaquin Valley has positive points — and challenges. Except for one neighbor who also has pistachios, her orchards are not near other tree nuts, which is likely why she isn’t bothered much by pest and disease issues that can be troublesome for growers.

The only impact for the area is water: The family farm has no groundwater, and must rely on the California State Water Project for surface water. During the most recent drought, she says, they spent “a lot of money buying water on the open market.”

Good breezes in the area, and a constant prevailing wind, have a twofold benefit — they likely help reduce Botryophaeria and Alternaria, and provide adequate wind pollination.

She grows Kerman variety trees, with Peters trees to pollinate them. She shakes her six-year-old trees once, continuing the single shakes until the trees mature, when a second shake is done during harvest. She has no hard and fast rule of when she will begin that second shake, saying she prefers to wait until the trees can withstand it.

Though an occasional marine layer from the nearby coastal range can spill over the hillsides and make it cooler in her orchards than a few miles to the east, Roden says she isn’t sure whether good chill hours are better or worse than a few miles east into the Valley. It can tend to be a few degrees warmer there during Valley freeze events.

In her area, Roden much prefers the deeper-rooted pistachio trees to shallow-rooted almonds, because of high winds that are common to the region, particularly during the spring.

Best Crop Ever

In 2010, she had her best crop ever — about 6,900 pounds per acre on average, with one 18-acre block that produced 7,500 pounds per acre. That was also the same year a heavy wind came through late in the summer as harvest was getting under way, knocking “significant amounts of crop onto the ground.”

The windstorm didn’t affect all the trees. The hillsides seemed to channel gusts to certain areas and cause them to “jump” over certain blocks of trees, leaving them largely unscathed. Still, one block that got hit fairly hard produced 6,200 pounds per acre, after a large amount of the crop was knocked to the ground.

That event, she says, taught her to begin harvest every year in the same location that was hit by the high winds, the thought being that trees in the more wind-protected areas could wait a few days.

Roden’s 2017 crop was lighter than expected, for reasons she still doesn’t know, but the total U.S. crop yielded about 605 million pounds, the second heaviest on record.

Her orchards also tend to have a higher percentage of non-splits than other growers across the Valley — a phenomenon she admits she still doesn’t fully understand. “They’re as full as they can be,” she says. “They’re not damaged or small nuts, but the seam is just welded shut.”

A few years ago she tried deficit-irrigating a small block of trees to see if it would help with the splits, and was able to get non-splits down to between 7 percent and 8 percent, but in the process the crop load was reduced by 50 percent.

Processors won’t turn down non-splits any more, and have since boosted the price of non-split pistachios.

“As farmers, we are always trying to find a more efficient way of getting a job done and creating a better product,” Roden says. “With all the ups and downs of farming, we are all still incurable optimists. We believe there is an answer to any problem, and we live in the belief that we will do better next year.”

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