Owner of J.S. Valera Custom Farming donates his lambs to low-income students to encourage careers in agriculture

By Tim Tesconi

Joe Valera’s entrepreneurial spirit and a magnificent obsession to succeed emerged growing up amid the vineyards at his family’s Foppiano Wine Co. in Healdsburg.

When he was a teenager Valera observed that perfectly good wine grapes – the so-called “seconds” – were left hanging on the vines after the harvest crew raced through the family’s vineyards. On his own, Valera started picking the leftover grapes and selling them to home winemakers in San Francisco. It cost him $400 a ton to glean the fruit and he sold the Italian style varietals for $2,000 a ton to basement winemakers eager to get the Sonoma County grapes.

The handsome profit gave the 16-year-old Valera a taste for business and the value of hard work, opportunity and the creative process. And it provided an appreciation for the financial rewards that come from enterprise and innovation.

The young man’s get-up-and-go mightily impressed his grandfather, the late and legendary winemaker Louis J. Foppiano, a man known for his sage wisdom and shrewd business acumen who died at 101 in 2012.

“My grandfather said that I was going to be a millionaire or go broke trying,” said Valera.  “I haven’t gone bankrupt yet, but tomorrow is another day.”

Today, Valera, who is 43, owns and operates J.S. Valera Custom Farming Inc., a Healdsburg-based diversified land management and farming company that has clients throughout the North Coast and in the Central Valley. The enterprise specializes in mechanical harvesting of grapes in the Central Valley where Valera is firmly entrenched in the business of farming. His company, a member of the California Farm Bureau Federation, has clients that are major players in the state’s agricultural industry and the politics of farming.

But in Sonoma County the most visible of Valera’s varied agricultural ventures are the 700 ewes that graze on 600 acres of leased pastureland from Petaluma to Cloverdale. He also rents his sheep out for seasonal grazing of vineyards in Napa and Sonoma counties, being one of the few grazers with expertise in both sheep and wine grape culture.

So, if you see flocks of black faced sheep – big, strapping Hampshire-Suffolk crosses – they likely belong to Valera, one of the surviving sheep producers in Sonoma County.  His focus is producing top-quality  project lambs for 4-H and FFA members throughout California and in other states including Texas and Kentucky.  He also is cultivating relationships with Wine Country chefs to get his premium lamb on more menus of high-end restaurants.

Valera sells 65 percent of his lambs as projects for 4-H and FFA members. He also generously donates lambs to low-income students so they can raise an animal and have an agricultural experience. It’s his way of investing in agriculture’s future in the Central Valley and, this year, in Sonoma County where three FFA members were awarded Valera’s lambs at no cost.

The centerpiece of his sheep operation is a sprawling expanse of land on Shiloh Road. The leased property, destined for commercial development in the future, is south of the Windsor shopping center that anchors Walmart and Home Depot.

It’s on this former Shiloh Road chicken ranch that Valera and his employees including a Peruvian sheepherder, who is here as an H2A ag worker, lamb out the flock. Once ewes have their lambs they are put in a pen, or “jail,” so the lambs nurse and bond with their mother in a bed of straw.  Valera and his crew take pride in the husbandry of the sheep under their watch. Six guard dogs protect the flock from coyotes and other predators.

“We try to be good land stewards and take care of our livestock in the best way possible. These animals are only on this earth for a short time so we work very hard to make sure they are taken care of,” said Valera.  “The landowners we lease land from appreciate that.”

Like other sheep flocks in Sonoma County, Valera’s began as a youth project years ago. And, well, just multiplied.

“It’s a 4-H project gone wild,” Valera laughs, himself wondering how it all came to be. “I started with one sheep. It needed a friend. Now here I am with 700 sheep.”

Valera was a member of the Warm Springs 4-H Club where his sheep leader was Jim Neumiller, a purebred sheep producer in Healdsburg who got his start raising sheep as a member of the Santa Rosa FFA.

Valera graduated from Healdsburg High School where he was a member of the Healdsburg FFA and active in livestock and vine pruning competitions. He enrolled at Fresno State University to study agriculture and while in college worked part-time for a large farming company in Lodi.

After graduating from Fresno State, Valera and an aggie classmate started their own custom farming and grape harvesting business. Eventually Valera bought out his partner and is now the sole owner of the company that has 12 full-time employees.

Valera said Pati Oliver is his right arm in helping him run his business and the family household. Pati along with her identical twin sister Janice Marzlin are the owners of Santa Rosa’s Bright Idea Twins, a business that does promotion and marketing.

“Joe has made me part of his family and I love working with him,” said Pati.  “He is a very generous guy to his employees, friends and, of course, his family.”

Valera said several of his key employees go back and forth between the sheep flock and vineyard work.

“It really works out because in December and January when most vineyard workers are unemployed our workers are earning overtime while we are busy lambing,” said Valera.  “We work as a multi-versed team.”

The other busy time is in May when his ewes are inseminated via artificial insemination under the direction of an Iowa-based veterinarian who is a nationally recognized expert in the field. It takes a team 11 people working together in precision to perform the intricate procedure on the 700 ewes.

Valera, a big-picture guy, considers himself the “traffic controller,” keeping his businesses and employees moving forward in what is basically a 365 days-a-year enterprise.  Over the last two decades, Valera has grown and expanded his farming business, piling venture upon venture as he and his wife Sandy Valera, a crop consultant with Grow West Geyserville, raise their family in Healdsburg.

The couple has two daughters, Della, 10, named for Valera’s maternal grandmother Della Bastoni Foppiano, and Catherine, 6.  The Valera daughters attend St. John’s Catholic School in Healdsburg and are members of the Lytton Springs 4-H Club.

Valera knows the tremendous value of 4-H and FFA for young people and is a big supporter of the programs.  For years he has been donating project lambs to low-income students, mostly children of farmworkers, in the Central and Sacramento valleys.

“These kids can’t afford $400 for a lamb. I want them to have the opportunity to experience agriculture and get a taste of  what it’s like to raise an animal for the fair,” said Valera. “I believe it’s one more way to provide exposure to farming so they might consider a career in agriculture.”

Valera donates 100 lambs each year to students throughout California. This year, Valera reached out to retired educator Steve Olson of Santa Rosa about donating lambs to Sonoma County students who would otherwise not be able to raise a lamb for the fair. Olson heads the Jamison Merit Awards, an endowment fund that provides grants to ag students at Santa Rosa and Elsie Allen high schools to assist in purchasing hogs, lambs and goats to raise for the Sonoma County Fair. A countywide program offers grants of $1,000 to purchase project steers for the fair.

Olson said Valera’s generous donation of project lambs has the potential for changing lives in a good and positive way. He has seen it happen over his decades in agriculture education.

“When an FFA member decides to embark on a hands-on livestock project they are starting down a road to one of the most valuable educational experiences achievable while in high school,” said Olson, who taught high school agriculture before joining the agriculture department at Santa Rosa Junior College.

Unfortunately, said Olson, some students don’t have the financial resources to buy and raise a project animal.

“That’s why breeders like Joe Valera and merit award grants like the ones provided by the J. Wesley Jamison Memorial Endowment are so important in starting students down the path of their agricultural education,” said Olson.

He hopes what Valera is doing will encourage other North Coast livestock breeders to donate project animals to worthy students in financial need.

Olson said the recipients of Valera’s lambs are FFA members Maria Santos and Kendall Stephenson, both of Santa Rosa High School, and Emma Vega of Elsie Allen High School.  The students will be guided by their agriculture teachers in raising the lambs and entering them in the Sonoma County Fair, Aug. 3-13.

Meanwhile, Valera will be at the fair with his daughter Della who shows lambs from the family flock. As a fierce competitor himself going back to his 4-H and FFA days, Valera takes a keen interest in seeing how the lambs he sells and donates turn out for their debut in the showring.