Carl Northam spends a lifetime with California grower
Carl Northam grew up in Shafter, CA, in the 1940s and 50s in the heart of the agriculturally rich San Joaquin Valley, so it seemed only natural to look for a job on a ranch when he was first seeking employment in his late teens.
In 1960, Northam did, in fact, secure what he calls a “gopher” position with nearby Vignolo Farms. At the time, Vignolo Farms was a row crop operation growing alfalfa, cotton, wheat and beans.
“The founder, C.J. (Ted) Vignolo, was a personable fellow so I stayed around,” said Northam.
In those early years, Northam didn’t think much beyond the next day so he didn’t really consider that this would be his career. But it is 60 years later and the longtime farm manager for Vignolo Farms is ready to retire. He quipped that the years flew by and “then I woke up one day and it was 60 years later.”
While Vignolo Farms started as a row crop operation, through most of Northam’s career permanent crops have been the focus. He revealed that the farming operation has four major crops: grapes, potatoes, almonds and pistachios. He said that the operation has about an equal number of acres in each, but declined to say the total size of the farm. “That’s like asking how much you have in the bank,” he said of the question.
Northam said that working on the ranch was a “dark-to-dark, seven-day-a-week job.” He climbed the ladder over the years, continuing to move into positions with more responsibility until he was running the farm. His education included on-the-farm, hands-on training as well as attending many ag courses and seminars offered by various groups and companies. He admits that potatoes are his favorite crop.
He said “water and the lack of it” continues to be the No. 1 issue facing California agriculture, and it is also the area of farming where Northam has witnessed the biggest change in his six-decade long career. “We used to irrigate by flood and by row,” he said. “Now we use drip irrigation and micro-drip.”
He said all the commodities that Vignolo Farms grows need about three acre feet of water to produce a crop, but they are yielding much more production per acre on that water than ever before by targeting the drip emitters specifically where the roots are.
Northam said scientific innovation in many aspects of farming has changed the practices tremendously. He noted that GPS systems are used in many facets of farming, and plant scientists have developed chemicals that can target a weed but leave the plant unharmed. He called these scientific advancements “miracles” for farmers.
Technology and engineering have also created many new tools that farmers can use to help them grow a crop. “Way back in the old days, everyone had a machine shop,” Northam said. “When you needed something, you had to make it yourself.”
Vignolo Farms has been a leader in organic production and is now growing all its potatoes with that growing process. Northam commented that the new technique is actually a throwback to how they used to grow crops when he first joined the company before there was a full toolbox of chemical crop protection options.
The life-long Shafter resident has seen the surrounding landscape change with the crops that Vignolo Farms and others grow. Decades ago, he said you couldn’t grow some crops like pistachios. Again, he credits science for giving new opportunities for farmers by developing new varieties that can withstand the valley’s climatic conditions and soil.
Brett Dixon, president of Top Brass Marketing, which is the Bakersfield, CA-based sales arm of Vignolo Farms, said he has had a symbiotic relationship with Northam and the rest of the farm production team since he joined the sales organization almost three decades ago. Of course, each side of the equation needs the other half to complete the story.
“We deal with each other all the time,” Dixon said. “We need them to produce the crops and they need us to sell them.”
Dixon and Northam noted that Vignolo Farms has had many long-term employees but none that are as time-tested as the farm manager. He recalled an office employee who was with the firm for 45 years -- quite an accomplishment but one that pales in comparison next to Northam’s 60 years of service.
For his retirement, Northam, who has a wife and two sons, was planning on doing a little traveling. “We can’t do that now because of COVID,” he said, noting that the pandemic is something unlike anything else he has experienced in his six decades in agriculture.