Family Tree Farms – From Humble Beginnings to Leadership in Ag Innovation
From humble beginnings in farm labor during the Great Depression to becoming a world leader in agricultural innovation, the Jackson family’s story is one of resilience, determination, and incredible success. Their company, Family Tree Farms, is responsible for bringing some of the most sought-after stone fruits, berries, and more to a market near you. Their farming operation encompasses 5,000 acres in California’s Central Valley. They also have farms in Mexico, Peru, and South Africa.
We recently had a chance to tour their research center in Reedley, California to learn more about what they do at Family Tree Farms, and to taste over 20 different varieties of stone fruit at peak ripeness (it’s a tough job but someone has to do it).
Farming Through The Generations
Since Herschel Jackson first came to California in the 1930s, the Jackson family has been devoted to putting down roots, both figuratively and literally, in California’s San Joaquin Valley. Herschel made a modest, but good living, and was entirely committed to farming the land. It’s a commitment, Daniel Jackson notes, that runs generations deep. “My grandpa mortgaged his house to start each child into farming. This shows the incredible amount of trust he had in his children to essentially leverage everything to get them started in business. That theme of calculated yet faithful risk personifies the family to this day. It is a huge reason for the success we have on the farm,” says Daniel, eighth-generation farmer and co-owner at Family Tree Farms.
In 2001 the Jackson’s started Family Tree Farms, the culmination of decades of hard work and growth in the industry. What started as a smallish stone fruit farm, has expanded to include citrus, cherries, pistachios, almonds, apples, and kiwis. In 2006, they decided to try their hand at growing berries. “After cutting our teeth on some commercial varieties, we soon forged an important relationship with Ridley Bell from Mountain Blue Orchards in Australia who is the world’s foremost breeder of new blueberry genetics. Once we saw his genetics matched with the growth of the blueberry category, we went all in on the opportunity,” Daniel says.
Innovation and Growth
Since those early years, they have been able to multiply their success by leveraging knowledge from breeders all over the world. Perhaps you’ve heard of the Jumboz blueberries (that are so big they won the Guinness World Record), or some of their exceptional plumcots like Emerald Beaut or Flavor Gator. Family Tree Farms’ fruit is carefully selected from elite fruit breeding programs, grown in a ten-acre test orchard where they trial more than 1,000 (non-GMO) varieties in their industry-leading research center. If the fruit makes the cut, grafts are distributed to their large network of family growers. Patience is key — as it takes years for a new variety to make it to market. “We’ve really seen the fruits of that research,” enthuses Daniel “because the varieties our company has put out feel like they’ve been home runs”.
A Sustainable Future
It’s no surprise that the Jackson family takes sustainability seriously. By protecting the land, they ensure it will be farmable for generations to come. “Generational farming and sustainability are one and the same” says Daniel. “That means being conscious of soil quality, and water quality and treating our workers like family. We want our name to say it all – Family Tree Farms”.
Daniel describes how each member of the team truly does feel like family. At Family Tree Farms, they strive to foster a culture of mutual respect, caring, and encouragement. “When you are a family, you treat others in a caring way, you greet people with a smile, you correct them gently when they fail and build them up when they succeed. It also means you take care of the farm so that it continues to my children and to theirs,” he says.
The Central Valley is a Hidden Gem Just Waiting to Be Discovered
One of Daniel’s favorite parts of his job is taking out-of-towners on tours of their facility and farms in the Central Valley. “Each tour is different, but typically they all walk away amazed at the complexity and care it takes to get produce to the marketplace. More people need to come and see the breadbasket of the world, to taste and see the goodness it provides. People need to see us for more than just a brand in the grocery store,” he says.
Daniel is adamant that people see and understand where their food comes from, and importantly, know who grows it. “Most people from urban or city areas are raised with different perceptions about farming. It’s more important than ever to know where your food comes from and how it gets to you,” he remarks.
With a Mind Towards the Future
Though farming is in the Jackson family’s blood, there aren’t enough farmers to fulfill future needs. “I hope that more interaction in our area will also produce more farmers in the future. The average age of farmers worldwide is 60 years old and getting older. Family operations like us are an endangered species, getting even more rare,” muses Daniel. But he’s still optimistic about the future.
“We are incredibly thankful for the business we are a part of. We truly enjoy the entire industry. From the retailers to the growers, marketers and shippers, they all make up who we are as farmers. We even get along with our competitors. It’s really fun to see who can be on the top of their game.”
The future for Family Tree Farms is shaping up to be a delicious one, and Daniel is especially grateful for his research and development team. They work hard, he explains, to bring new breeds of fruits to market. “Special shout out to our research and development team. They have been a huge reason for our success. Thank you also to all the breeders around the world who we think of as part of the family at Family Tree Farms.”