The young entrepreneur is among the next generation of agriculture leaders in Sonoma County making a difference
By Tim Tesconi
From an office in his old farmhouse in the Two Rock Valley, Rocco Cunningham, armed with a computer, cell phone and his accumulated business savvy, methodically moves salvaged agricultural waste byproducts to cattle and chicken ranches throughout California and beyond.
Cunningham’s company, called Integrity Trading LLC, focuses on sustainability by up-cycling agricultural waste by-products for low -input supplemental feeds and bedding – products like wood shavings, rice hulls, spent grains and oddball stuff like prune meal. Anything that has some nutritional value and can be utilized to feed the animals that fed America.
Cunningham’s goal is to minimize the footprint of commercial processors, like whiskey distillers and sake makers, by strategically reallocating their waste byproducts so they can be utilized as cheap supplemental feed and bedding on farms and ranches.
It’s a business model totally attuned to Cunningham’s environmental ethic and moral compass. The name of the company encompasses the values that Cunningham lives by.
“At the end of the day, I am a feed broker logistically moving waste products from processers to livestock and poultry producers throughout California and into Oregon and Nevada,” said Cunningham, 31, working from an office in the farmhouse he shares with his wife Betsey, who manages the office of a prominent law firm in Santa Rosa, and their two-year-old daughter McRaelynn. The Cunninghams are expecting their second child in March.
“I work on thin margins but I only need a computer and cell phone so my overhead is low,” he said.
Cunningham said his work is personally gratifying because it fills a need for processors, like Gekkeikan Sake in Folsom, and producers, like a dairy farmer in Tulare. Both are mutually benefited by his role as the man in the middle who makes it happen.
“The fun part is the relations aspect of this business, creating an outlet for a processor and low-cost input for a producer,” said Cunningham, a premium member of Sonoma County Farm Bureau. “Because it’s just me I am able to create lasting relationships with the people I work with.”
Cunningham said he’s always on the lookout for a waste byproduct that can be used by livestock or poultry producers, helping to ease their production costs so they can compete. He sometimes finds himself scouting items in grocery stores looking at California food items that might have an untapped waste product he can help recycle.
Cunningham, a fourth generation Sonoma County agriculturalist, founded Integrity Trading LLC two years after working for a time at his family’s R.O. Shelling Grain and Feed Co. in Petaluma. He set out on his own because of differences he had with the operation of the family feed company.
He wanted to pursue a different business model, based on his values. He is happy he made the transition to be on his own doing work that makes a difference.
“This feels right to me,” said Cunningham, who growing up was an award-winning member of the 4-H and FFA programs in Sonoma County. He graduated from Petaluma High School in 2010, studied at Modesto Junior College for two years before enrolling at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. to study animal science and nutrition. He graduated from Cornell in 2014.
His first job was with Cargill in Texas where he did livestock feed analysis and logistics. He then took a similar position doing feeds and feeding at a large-scale dairy in Florida where he met Betsey McRae, who also worked on the dairy. They eventually married and worked together on the dairy for several years before returning to Sonoma County in 2018.
Cunningham said his education at Cornell and his work experiences in Texas and Florida had prepared him to work and innovate at the family’s Petaluma feed company, which he did for a couple of years. But he found there were insurmountable hurdles in the family dynamics and he set out on his own to develop his own company.
Integrity Trading LLC now serves 100 producers in California, from Tulare in the south to Etna in the north. While Cunningham spends most of his days in his office in the farmhouse on a family ranch in Petaluma, he makes it a point to routinely meet with his clients face-to-face to maintain the personal relationships that he believes are key to his success as both a person and businessman.
Cunningham graduated from the California Agriculture Leadership program in 2022, utilizing what he learned to go forth in his business and in the community. He said several of his fellow classmates helped him connect with processors throughout California when he launched his business
A man of deep faith and strong convictions, Cunningham built his business on the principles of honesty and integrity that are at the core of the person he strives to be. A Bible passage from Titus, Chapter 2, verses 7-8, is on his computer screen – constant affirmation of the guiding philosophy he wants to live by.
The verses read, “In everything set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity, seriousness and soundness of speech that cannot be condemned, so that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us.”
Cunningham’s agricultural roots run deep on both sides of family with multi-generational connections to the land. His mother Lynn is the daughter of poultry rancher Delmar Friedrichsen and the late Hanne Friedrichsen who died in 1998. Delmar is retired from poultry ranching himself but still lives on the family ranch that his parents settled after emigrating from Germany. The poultry buildings on the property are now leased to another producer.
In fact, Cunningham and his family live in the farmhouse where Delmar Friedrichsen was born and raised. It’s a familial connection that Cunningham values because his grandfather has had such a positive influence on his life.
Cunningham’s father, John “Cowboy” Cunningham comes from a Santa Rosa dairy family. John Cunningham and several of his siblings own and operate R.O. Shelling Grain and Feed, one of the feed companies in Petaluma.
In many ways, Cunningham sees himself as a byproduct of all the hard work that Sonoma County agricultural leaders have done to educate and inspire the next generation. He said there is a remarkable network of organizations and individuals dedicated to supporting the young people who want to continue in agriculture.
Cunningham said he benefited tremendously from the experiences at local fairs, agricultural scholarships and the dedication and support of mentors like his grandfather, the late Saralee McClelland Kunde and Sonoma County Fair director Marilyn Herzog of Sleepy Hollow Dairy. He also counts Dennis and Kirsten Araeis of Los Banos as valued mentors.
“I consider myself very fortunate to have grown up Sonoma County where there is so much support for the young people who will carry on to keep agriculture a part of our way-of-life,” said Cunningham. “My parents also played a key role in influencing me in agriculture. They continually pushed me to jump into new opportunities and their upbringing in agriculture generally helped push me towards ag- based opportunities.”
Rocco and Betsey Cunnningham are now taking on leadership and mentoring roles themselves – giving back – as they establish their place in the community and raise a family. Betsey serves as a director of the Youth Ag & Leadership Foundation of Sonoma County. Rocco is a director of the Sonoma County Fair, serving with fair directors like Marilyn Herzog and Annette O’Kelley who were an inspiration to him as a 4-H and FFA member. He joins them in advocating for farm youth and keeping agriculture at the heart of the Sonoma County Fair.
Both Rocco and Betsey are actively involved members of Spring Hill Church in Fulton. Coincidentally the church is on property once owned by Richard and Saralee Kunde who were such a part of Cunningham’s life.
At his church, Cunningham leads a group called “Fit to Be Men” a workout and Bible study group that helps men be the best they can be in body, mind and spirit as they navigate life, work and marriage. Guys range in age from 16 to 54 years old, bonding together during physical workouts, study and discussions sessions.
Cunningham said it’s a rewarding experience for him to bring these men together to discuss their fears and faults and a path toward a better life.
“There’s a lot of value in knowing you’re not the only one dealing with all of life’s problems,” said Cunningham.
Looking ahead, Cunningham plans to grow his business one customer at a time while continuing to take on more leadership roles in agriculture to preserve both his family’s and Sonoma County’s rich farming heritage. He wants his children to have the opportunity to be involved in a thriving agricultural community.
Cunningham said down the road he may seek a seat on the Sonoma County board of supervisors or other political office to be a voice for the agricultural community that defines the North Bay region that he and his family have called home for four generations.