“When I had my first farming experience, a light went on for me and I thought ‘wow, this is completely cool, I love this.’ But I didn’t know anything about farming, so it’s been a long learning process. There are so many different aspects of viticulture, from the business side to the farming side… if you can’t crack that code…” He trails off; leaving me to think the words “you’re screwed.”
That’s a bit of Newtonian wisdom, but it’s not coming from the guy who discovered gravity; this is from Jeff Newton, founder of Santa Barbara County’s Coastal Vineyard Care Associates. I meet Jeff at his office at 7:30 Wednesday morning. It is one of those mornings that promises to be warm, the sun rising clear over the Santa Ynez Valley. Wednesdays, I learn, are Jeff’s days for visiting vineyards in Los Alamos. As we climb into his truck, I ask him how he got into farming.
“Well, I was studying Econ as an undergrad at UCSB. When I was a sophomore, I went to Europe with some friends and when we came back I needed a job for that last month of the summer. One of my roommates at UCSB had parents who owned prune orchards up in Northern California-between Chico and Red Bluff-and they needed help with the prune harvest. I had never worked on a farm, ever. I don’t think I had ever even been on a farm. And so I thought, ‘Yeah, I’ll do that!’”
I say, ‘As people do when they don’t know what they are getting themselves into.’ Jeff laughs, “Yeah! I went up there and for those 30 days we worked every day without a day off.” He pauses for me to exclaim, “wow!” and then continues, “Yeah, for 10 hours per day we would work at the prune dehydrator plant and then at night we would go back home and move aluminum sprinkler pipe in the walnut orchard, so we were working 14-16 hours a day, every day. And it was hot and the work was hard but I completely fell in love with it and I thought, ‘this is too cool.’ As I said, the light really went on for me. I knew I was interested, but I had no idea how I could become involved in farming because I had no experience, no formal education in it, no background, no nothing. But that is what hooked me, was that experience, so I went back the next summer to do it again.”
Jeff then took a year off after finishing his Bachelor’s degree, lived in Colorado for nine months and traveled for another six months before returning to UCSB for a Master’s degree in Economics. “I really thought that is what I would do: urban and regional economics,” he says. “I thought I was going to be working in some kind of planning capacity for a city. I applied for some jobs in Los Angeles as an economist, but part of that Master’s degree required an internship at the end. So I asked my advisor, ‘I know it’s odd, my focus being more urban-skewed, but can you place me in some kind of agricultural position.’ And he said, ‘Yeah! No problem!’ I was shocked.”
He smiles at the memory, turning right onto Alisos Canyon road.
Jeff then went to work for the Farm Advisors office in Santa Barbara, and the Santa Barbara County Water Agency. At the time, he was building computer models to forecast the demand for irrigation water. “It was an ag-econ project,” he says. “I got to hang out with farm advisors and learn a lot about water resource planning.” Upon completing his Master’s Degree, his advisor recommended that he head toward Sacramento for work. “I ended up applying for a job with the Bureau of Reclamation, which was a federal position, and then also for the State with the California Department of Water Resources. I ultimately took the job with the State, DWR, so I was doing the same thing there that I did during my internship-building these bigger computer models, these linear programming models for forecasting irrigation water. That was pretty interesting.”
“I just wasn’t passionate about the work. I couldn’t do it anymore and I wanted to get out.”
He ended up staying with DWR for a year and a half or so but realized, “I just wasn’t passionate about the work. I couldn’t do it anymore and I wanted to get out.” What the DWR did offer Jeff had been invaluable, though. While conducting back-road surveys regarding the drought in the ‘70’s and meeting mostly with farmers, he became charmed by their farmsteads, whether they were cattle ranchers, rose growers, rice growers, or tomato growers. “I would show up and do my official survey and then afterwards I would do an informal survey for myself, asking ‘Hey, how did you get involved in farming? How did you get started? Why do you like this?’ And at the end of those three months I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I said, ‘I’ve got to figure out a way to do this.’”
Jeff began working at an organic farm near Davis. “My father was pissed!” He laughs and continues, “I was working as a farm worker, but I couldn’t speak a word of Spanish, I didn’t know how to drive a tractor; I had never really done farm work before. But we were picking all sorts of vegetables and so I learned how to irrigate, how to drive a tractor, and of course I learned how to speak Spanish. It was blazing hot; we were working ten hours per day, six days per week, 105 degrees every day. And after that I still liked it! So I stayed for the whole season.” Following that introduction to farming, Jeff quickly joined a Sacramento-based farming company called AgIndustries. “We farmed around 10,000 acres between Chico and Porterville; we had cotton, we had tomatoes, lots of almonds, walnuts, prunes, but we also had a lot of acres of grapes. I helped plant grapes in Lodi, I didn’t really know what I was doing, but it was a terrific job, I learned so much. I still had no formal background in agriculture and these conversations would happen, farmer to farmer; I would listen to one guy who would say one thing and another guy who would say another thing, and I didn’t have any way of knowing who was bullshitting. I realized I needed to have some kind of formal background if I was going to continue, and I knew I wanted to live in Santa Barbara. So I drove down here and looked around and it was either avocados or grapes. When I was working for AgIndustries, our vineyards had the highest rate of return, so I knew that grapes were a good crop. At the time I was still living in Davis, right across from the university, so I was like ‘shit, I ought to go to UC Davis.’ I applied and was accepted into the Master’s program in Viticulture.”
Jeff is a wealth of knowledge. He is the kind of person that makes you feel like you should constantly be carrying a pencil and pad of paper around, so you can jot down all the little tidbits of information he casually puts out into the world. I have met exactly two other people like this. I definitely want him on my trivia team.
I ask him if he has a favorite ranch within Santa Barbara County. “Oh they are all my babies,” he says, sentimentally… “In the beginning I had three ranches and six guys working for me but Brander was one of the first ones. Stolpman, McGinley, and Grassini are really important, too. At Grassini, we are able to do really, really good things, and the family is so great to work with. Thompson was really important for me; as was Kimsey. That was kind of the culmination of everything we learned in Ballard Canyon. We were able to put all of that knowledge we gained about clones, rootstocks, varieties, planting densities, and heights of trellises in the last ten to fifteen years into Kimsey. It is a brilliantly planted vineyard, so I love taking tours out there.”
Not only is Jeff an inquisitive and passionate farmer, he’s also willing to make mistakes if that’s what it takes to get at something noteworthy. “When you are experimenting you are going to make mistakes, which is the downside of it, but that is the great thing about having multiple vineyards. I mean, Happy Canyon is completely different from Ballard Canyon, which is completely different from Sta. Rita Hills. They are all so different and have their own varieties, and the trellis experiments are going to be completely different in each area. But we are always experimenting. There are failures sometimes, but you just chalk that up to experience. We are fortunate to have several very open-minded ranch owners that are willing to let us experiment. This company does so well because we are continually being innovative and trying to improve. We never farm every vineyard or even every block within a vineyard the same way. What works for, say, Syrah in one block isn’t going to work on another part of the ranch because soils can vary so widely even within a couple of acres.”
“This company does so well because we are continually being innovative and trying to improve.”
Jeff currently has three business partners by his side at Coastal Vineyard Care Associates: Ben Merz, Ruben Solorzano, and Mike Testa. I ask him what it’s like to share a business with three very different farmers. “When Ben and Ruben first started, I wanted them to be an exact replica of me. I wanted them to make the same decisions I made but after about six or seven years Ruben was going a little bit this way and Ben was going a little bit that way and in the beginning it was irritating to me! It was pissing me off!” He smiles when I laugh at his vehemence. “But I realized we needed to have that diversity. We need to have vineyard managers who bring different skills and different roles to the table. It’s that diversity that makes this company really strong. And that was a big revelation for me. I mean, you know they all have to be trained in the same basic viticultural way, but beyond that there is a lot of nuance. It is so good to have Ruben, Ben, and Mike on my team.”
I tell Jeff that I think that’s a great thing for farmers to remember: to not get discouraged and to remember that they are still young and it is going to take many years for them to become comfortable in their farming decisions. Jeff responds with the voice of experience, “Yeah, I was really impatient when I was in my twenties; I just wanted it all. I wanted it my way, now. But it takes a while to accumulate all the information. You need to hear what other people have to say. To me, patience is the most important thing for young farmers to have. You need to pay attention and listen to different people and ask a lot of questions.”
“Farming is not for everyone, that is for sure; it is so demanding. But for the right person it is pretty magical.”
Heather Daenitz is a Viticulture Generalist with Coastal Vineyard Care Associates. She holds a Bachelor’s of Science in Viticulture and Enology from Oregon State University and currently resides in Orcutt, in Santa Barbara County.
Featured Photo by Andrew Schoneberger