Poncia Fertilizer, Inc. plays a vital role in Sonoma County’s multi-billion farming industry
By Tim Tesconi
Andy Poncia is the Sonoma-Marin Dairy Belt’s manure man, a title earned fair and square during his 33 years dredging manure pits on the region’s dairies and spreading the rich fertilizer on pastures of plenty.
Each fall Poncia is the driving force behind “Sonoma Aroma,” the pungent barnyard smell, reminiscent of crusted cowboy boots, that permeates the air when dairies clean out their manure pits before the winter rains. To ag folks it’s an earthy perfume that is part of the seasonal rhythm of renewal. It’s also sensory proof that cows are still part of the county’s thriving farming industry.
City folks are not so appreciative, lodging complaints about the odors with the agricultural commissioner’s office. They are politely informed that we live in a right-to-farm county and manure spreading is a necessary practice on dairies.
“It smells for a few days but it will turn the pastures and fields lush and green next spring,” said Poncia, who is 55 and firmly entrenched in the agriculture industry as the proprietor of Poncia Fertilizer, Inc. He started building his business when he was 22 years old and has never stopped, adding venture after venture while working seven days a week to make it all happen.
“I love agriculture and the people involved in agriculture. I can’t say “no” when I am asked to take on something new,” said Poncia, who is a premium member of Sonoma County Farm Bureau and a staunch supporter of 4-H and FFA programs.
Poncia values and respects his employees who he says are part of the company’s growth and success.
“I couldn’t do it without the great people who work here, some of them for more than 20 years,” he said.
Poncia’s email address, “spreadingit,” is a wry acknowledgement of the work he loves and the family business he has created with his wife Lisa, and their three children, Max, 23, Olivia, 21, and Rocco, 17. Poncia’s children grew up in the business, learning to drive trucks and other equipment at an early age and becoming familiar with the work schedules dictated by the seasons.
Oldest son Max now works full-time at Poncia Fertilizers, learning every aspect of the family business while starting his own silage chopping business. Olivia, an agribusiness student at Washington State University, works part time at Poncia Fertilizer as does Rocco, a senior ag student at Petaluma High School. Like Poncia himself, all his children were members of 4-H and FFA and showed livestock at the Sonoma County Fair and Sonoma-Marin Fair.
Poncia’s love for agriculture is matched by the respect and admiration he has earned from the farm community for his always positive attitude and can-do-spirit to get it done. He plays a vital role in handling waste from dairies and helping the Sonoma County Fair and Sonoma-Marin Fair in Petaluma to dispose of the mountains of straw and manure generated by livestock.
Poncia turns the cow waste and straw into a rich, locally-produced compost that is used by vineyards in Sonoma and Napa counties to improve soil fertility and tilth. It’s a prime example of how the county’s different farming enterprises are connected and mutually benefit from the region’s agricultural diversity.
Dayna Ghirardelli, executive director of Sonoma County Farm Bureau, said Andy Poncia and his company are part of the intricate fabric of the county’s multi-billion-dollar farming industry. He provides an essential service by helping dairies manage manure and then uses the cow waste to produce a compost that is the lifeblood for sustainably farmed vineyards in the North Coast.
“I’ve known Andy since we were kids. Then, like now, he was a hard-working person, committed to his job and those who helped him to grow and succeed. His dedication, passion and work ethic have been passed onto his children as I watch them work as hard as their dad did at that age,” said Ghirardelli, reared on a Petaluma dairy.
She said Poncia is always ready to lend a hand whenever it’s needed and contributes to causes that benefit the community.
“Andy continues to expand his business to support agriculture on a broader level and his reputation as a fair, personable, reliable businessman precedes him,” said Ghirardelli.
Fall is the busiest time of year for Poncia and his employees who are racing to beat the rain, which forecasters say could be abundant this winter. He has 25 year-round employees but the workforce grows to 50 during this time of year when there is so much to be done during a brief period of time. Poncia’s specialized equipment is moving from dairy to dairy as he and his crew pump and excavate the manure pits and spread the nitrogen rich slurry on fields.
Poncia Fertilizer, Inc. is a diverse and very successful ag business that encompasses many aspects of waste hauling and recycling of agricultural byproducts. Poncia does not advertise or even have a website. His business has grown by word-of-mouth among those who know that Poncia is the guy to get the job done. And with a smile to boot.
One of the leading components of Poncia Fertilizer, Inc. is the compost facility at the company’s headquarters on Wilfred Avenue, just west of the Graton Rancheria Casino in Rohnert Park. It’s here that waste materials – over a 12-week process – are methodically turned into a valuable soil amendment for vineyards.
In addition to his work on Sonoma-Marin dairies, Poncia also hauls grape pomace from 17 wineries and spent grains from Lagunitas Brewing in Petaluma. The spent grains are delivered to ranches that utilize the brewery’s byproduct to feed their cattle. The grape pomace is blended into some of the compost mixtures produced at Poncia Fertilizer, Inc.
Six days a week all year long Poncia’s has an employee specifically assigned to haul the biosolids from the City of Santa Rosa’s Llano Road Sewage Treatment plant. Poncia’s crews also venture into the Sacramento Valley where they spread fertilizers, primarily chicken manure from Petaluma, on rice fields for farmers like the Lundberg Family.
Poncia is a fourth-generation dairy rancher, the son of Santa Rosa dairyman Stan Poncia and Loretta Harris of Sebastopol. He worked on the family’s Stony Point Road dairy for a time but decided he liked maneuvering trucks and heavy equipment more than milking cows. Meanwhile, his brother John Poncia likes the cows and works with his dad on the dairy.
“You can turn off a truck at the end of the day, the cows just keep going,” Poncia says about the 24-7 aspect of running a dairy. When he was a student at Sebastopol’s Analy High School, he started working for the Dolcini Bros. in Petaluma who were then the leading manure handlers. It was a time when milk, not wine grapes, was the leading agricultural industry in Sonoma, with nearly 200 dairies in Sonoma and Marin counties. He loved the work and the ranchers he worked for.
Poncia eventually set out on his own and never looked back. When he started his manure spreading business the Beretta Dairy on Llano Road in Santa Rosa was his first customer. Doug Beretta, president of Sonoma County Farm Bureau, remembers that he and his father, Bob Beretta, wanted to help Poncia., who was young and eager, launch his business.
“My dad and I knew if we had multiple spreading options here in the county it would be beneficial,’’ said Beretta. “Andy had one liquid manure truck, a tractor with a manure pump and himself. He was here at sun up and left at sundown. He hasn’t changed in all these years. I don’t know anyone who works harder for the ag community than Andy. His business has grown tremendously but he hasn’t forgotten who helped him get started.”
Beretta Dairy, one of the survivors in the dairy industry, continues to rely on Poncia for manure management and considers him a good friend.
Sadly, Poncia has watched the dairy industry continue to decline during his more than 30 years in business. The economics of milk production have pushed many longtime families out of business and a way-of-life they never thought they would give up. Poncia said when he started his manure hauling business in 1990 there were about 150 dairies.
Today there are about 45 dairy farms left in the Sonoma-Marin Dairy Belt.
A major part of Poncia’s business is making compost from the cow manure and straw that he recycles from farms and fairs. He got into compost production in 2009 when Rick Williams, who was then the owner of Earthbound Compost, approached him about taking over the business. Williams and his wife Leah Taylor had purchased Harmony Farm Supply in 2007 and wanted to focus on expanding that business, which they have done in a big way over the last 16 years.
Poncia said it was the perfect fit to better integrate his waste management business.
“It just brought everything together,” Poncia said. He said more opportunities may come along in the future and he’s always ready to consider them, particularly, if more of his children join the family business.
“If it has anything to do with agriculture we will do it,” said Poncia.