Bounty of the County. Father and Son, Humberto and Gabriel Castañeda, Bring in a Successful Harvest

Written By: Brytann Busick
Published: October 1, 2019

Humberto Castañeda Produce is nestled on a stretch of fertile ground at Denner Ranch along River Road between Santa Rosa and Forestville. Together, Humberto Castañeda, 62, and his son Gabriel, 26, work to grow high quality, fresh produce. On their 180 acres, they grow the most produce of any farmers in Sonoma County.

The family plans, prepares fields, plants, cultivates, fertilizes, harvests, markets, and sells the product of their hard work. The Castañeda’s fields are filled with vegetables for as far as the eye can see. Sweet corn, watermelon, peppers, tomatoes and squash blanket the landscape. Boxes and buckets of zucchinis, lemon cucumbers, and tomatoes sit waiting in the packing area to be loaded onto trucks to be delivered throughout the Bay Area.

Humberto said that they harvest 900 to 1,000 boxes of produce per day, which totals about 18,000 to 20,000 lbs.

One of Humberto Castañeda Produces’ biggest customers is Safeway.

“We’ve been selling to Safeway for over 30 years,” Gabriel said. “Because of the long term relationship we have with them, instead of us delivering to their distribution area, backhaul trucks will stop here and pick up our produce when they deliver to the area. They don’t really do that with other producers.”

They also sell to the farmers markets in Oakland and San Francisco, Ray’s in Cloverdale, Big John’s in Healdsburg, Andy’s Produce is Sebastopol, and El Rancho Mendoza in Sebastopol.

Humberto, who has been farming nearly all his life, said that he still loves it.

“It is something I have a passion for,” Humberto said. “I love being able to run my own business and to try new ideas.”

When Humberto first moved from Michoacán, Mexico to Sonoma County with his brothers in the 1970s, he did not work in the agriculture industry despite his farming heritage. He first worked in the fields, in construction, and in restaurants before helping a local retired doctor farm on his land. While he said he enjoyed farming again, he felt like his growth was limited. Humberto and his brothers quickly realized that growing produce, they could earn more in a day than they were able to make in a month at their restaurant jobs.

So, in 1978, Humberto and his two older brothers launched Castañeda Brothers Produce on 10 acres off of Laguna Road. In 1988, Humberto split from his brothers and he and his wife Maria started Humberto Castañeda Produce.

Humberto said that he is happy that he built a business that his son can now work for too.

Gabriel said his workday day starts at 6:00 a.m. He does roll call, assigns picking jobs, and tackles company paperwork. He said he has no official job title.

“I am a salesman, tractor operator, packing specialist, truck driver, drone operator, honestly, what isn’t in my job description?”

The Castañeda’s long-tenured passion for farming has sustained them through challenges of starting a business from the ground up to maintaining a successful farming operation for decades.

Gabriel admitted that the challenges of farming row crops have only continued to increase throughout his family’s 25 years of farming along the Russian River. He said that water, fertilizer, land, and labor costs have continued to rise. Surprisingly though, a 25 lb. box of squash, for example, was sold for between $12 and $14 in the 1970s. Today, the Castañedas can expect to get that same price despite increased farming costs.

Gabriel explained that production costs in Mexico are much less, largely because of labor costs. Therefore, to compete in supermarkets, they must bring their prices down.

Today, both father and son question whether economic forces, especially the costs of labor, will allow their family vegetable business to continue.

Gabriel said that they turned to the H-2A program about 6 years ago to source much-needed farm labor. Without it, Gabriel said they probably wouldn’t be in business.

“Now, all of our employees are from the H-2A program,” Gabriel said.  “We need about 30 guys and we were having a hard time getting them. We had maybe 10 employees and sometimes they would show up and sometimes they wouldn’t. From the beginning, H-2A worked great. We started with 8 guys from the H-2A and now we are up to 30.”

Looking to the future, the Castañedas decided to diversify their business by planting winegrapes and almonds, largely because both crops are less labor-intensive to harvest than produce is.

“We need to have a plan B,” Gabriel said. “Winegrapes are more profitable than produce, so we were willing to make the investment. We have 15 acres of winegrapes on Fulton Road. Half is planted to pinot noir and the other half is chardonnay. We also planted an almond orchard in Merced County three years ago.”

He explained that almonds can be harvested almost exclusively by machine, eliminating the need for handpicking. This year, it took only two men to harvest 60 acres of almonds. Meanwhile, here in Sonoma County, it takes about 30 employees to harvest 60 acres of produce.

“I look forward to expanding the vineyard and the almonds, and to always keep looking for other things to grow that are profitable,” Gabriel said.

Gabriel said that he still loves farming produce alongside his father on the Denner Ranch property and maintaining a close relationship with the longtime Sonoma County farming family. He said he remembers that the late Stan Denner would drive over on his three-wheeler with his dog on the back and to visit the Castañedas to be sure everything was ok.

“He loved coming out here to see what we were planting and harvesting. He was a great guy,” Gabriel said. “If it weren’t for him, we wouldn’t be here. Now, we have a great relationship with his daughter Kathy Reese and his nephew Russ Denner. We are very good family friends. ”

Sonoma County Farm Bureau Board Member Kathy Reese echoed the same sentiment and said that Humberto and Gabriel are two of the hardest working people she has ever known.

“I have had a relationship with the family the entire time they’ve been here. They truly have an understanding of the soil and the land they farm,” Reese said. “They take great pride in growing quality produce.”

Reese said that the acreage the Castañedas now farm was previously used for grazing cattle.

“Now that land is producing a great quantity and variety of food,” Reese said. “The Castañedas really do take pride in putting the very best on the table. The whole family has worked very hard.”

Reese remembers when Humberto’s wife Maria used to be out packing up vegetables.

“My parents started with small acreage, then added on each year,” Gabriel said. “I really grew up as a farm kid. My dad hired two guys and, together, they did all of the fieldwork and harvesting and my mom would sort and pack all of the produce.”

He said that after they were done picking and harvesting all day, his dad and mom would load up an old Chevy Silverado and head to San Francisco to make deliveries.

“They wouldn’t get back until 2:00 a.m. or 3:00 a.m., then would go to sleep and get back up at 6 a.m. to do it all over again,” Gabriel said. “It was like that for several years.”

As the years passed by, they started expanding the business.

“My older brother Humberto Jr. helped out with the business and then when I came along my mom would grab a squash box, throw a blanket in it and that was my crib,” Gabriel said.

Gabriel said that from his parents he learned how to work hard and to appreciate the value of a dollar after watching them work long, hard hours to grow the family business.

“Growing up, I noticed a lot of my friends in elementary school and high school had brand new clothes but they didn’t really appreciate them, but I did because I knew how hard both of my parents had to work to buy things for me,” Gabriel said. “I knew exactly what they had to do to make a certain amount of money. I literally saw the fruits of their labor.”

Within his family, Gabriel said he has witnessed another trend common in the agriculture industry.

“My uncle retired, and no one took over his operation and another uncle has two sons that won’t take over his farming business when he retires. So, once he’s done so is the business,” Gabriel said. ” Many farmers are retiring and not many new farmers are taking their place.”

The 4th generation farmer, though, said he never considered doing anything other than farming and hopes his children can continue the family legacy.

“My great grandfather and grandfather both farmed in Mexico and I learned everything I know from my dad,” Gabriel said. “I’d like for my kids to continue, but if I’m saying it’s hard now then I can’t imagine how hard it will be for my kids.”

Although they Humberto and Gabriel both would like to raise produce for years to come, diversifying to include less labor-intensive, high-value crops may be necessary to help safeguard their family’s farming legacy.

“We have been farming here since 1994, just one year after I was born,” Gabriel said. “Farming is all I’ve ever known.”

When this season’s harvest is finished, the Castañedas said that they will pick up the stakes and the water lines, till everything under, and begin planning for the next season.  Time will tell whether the 180 acres they tend to so carefully will again be home to a bounty of produce.

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