Young farmers work long hours to pursue their goals


Issue Date: October 17, 2012
By Christine Souza
Zack and Samantha Stuller with their son Henry, work full-time in agricultural careers. They grow forage crops on leased land in Tulare County.
Photos/Christine Souza
Zack and Samatha Stuller.
Christine Souza
Zack and Samantha Stuller work full-time in agricultural careers. In the evenings they grow forage crops on leased land in Tulare County.
Photos/Christine Souza
Zack Stuller works as director of irrigation for Sun Pacific. After his day job, he and his wife grow forage crops and hope to establish a farm growing permanent crops.
Photo/Christine Souza

Editor's note: This is the second of a three-part series describing the paths young farmers and ranchers take as they build their agricultural careers.You can read the previous installment here.

Establishing roots in a rural community for their young family's future is what drives Zack and Samantha Stuller of Tulare County. The couple works full-time in agricultural careers, devotes evenings to farming forage crops, and cares for their 5-month-old son, Henry. They hope someday to own a farm of their own where they grow permanent crops such as citrus and walnuts.

"The leased ranches that we have right now are a means to help achieve our long-term goal of owning land and developing it into permanent crops," Zack Stuller said. "Leased ground is a necessity because it is very hard to own enough land that will provide enough income that can sustain a family business."

Starting a farm today comes with plenty of challenges, especially for first-time farmers with limited income and experience, and in a fairly new community. Zack Stuller, originally from Marysville, works as a director of irrigation for Sun Pacific, a grower-packer-shipper of crops including citrus, table grapes, tomatoes and kiwifruit. He said from the time he was a small boy, he knew that he wanted to farm.

"I didn't grow up on a farm, but riding with my mom or dad into town, I remember watching the tractors, thinking, 'I wish I could do that.' I was always so jealous of my friends whose families were farmers," Stuller said, adding that his first word was "tractor."

A transportation coordinator for a Visalia food company, Samantha Stuller, a native of Santa Maria, recalls that her love of agriculture developed during high school, raising livestock as part of Future Farmers of America.

"There is so much value in being able to work with your hands, and to use the land to provide something that is useful and something that people need," she said.

After working during the day, the Stullers farm about 130 acres of irrigated forage crops such as hay and sorghum, and 270 acres of dryland hay and wheat. What helps them accomplish their farming pursuits, Zack said, is Samantha's understanding and support for the times he must skip dinner to go fix a pump; she said it's because of Zack's dedication and love of farming.

"When he has something that he loves to do, he is 110 percent committed to it. He can work eight to 10 hours a day for Sun Pacific, and is still excited to get back out there," Samantha said. "If the sun was up for 24 hours, he would never come back in the house."

The Stullers farm a patchwork of leased properties from Visalia to Dinuba. Finding new farmland to lease or to purchase is the largest obstacle the young couple faces, Zack Stuller said.

"Being a very small producer with limited connections, it is hard to find land to farm," he added.

A fellow Tulare County member of the Farm Bureau Young Farmers and Ranchers program, Karen Whaley, described the Stullers as "entrepreneurial" and "creative."

"They are not afraid to try new things. They are always trying out new crops and become better farmers because of it," Whaley said.

While they concentrate mostly on forage crops, the couple took a chance with growing pumpkins last fall and manned a pumpkin patch.

"I enjoyed the pumpkins because I was pushed out of my comfort zone a little bit and forced to figure it out on my own," Samantha Stuller said. "I enjoyed the learning process and developing and growing by doing something that I wasn't an expert in."

Zack Stuller credited Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, where the two met while earning agricultural degrees, with preparing them in aspects such as knowing how to develop a business plan, which was helpful when securing loans and credit.

"When you go to the John Deere dealer and say, 'I need a line of credit for parts; I need to rent this tractor' and you have no history, it is difficult," he said. "Five years ago when I started this, I didn't think it was possible, but people gave me a shot, then I paid my bill, and now I can use them as a credit reference."

Starting a farming business is challenging, even with a job and solid credit history, Samantha Stuller said, because young people don't have much money or experience.

"You just have to be persistent and not scared for people to tell you no," she said.

They advise others starting out in agriculture to talk to older farmers who have experience, and not to discount minor opportunities that will lead to additional experience or income.

"If you are in college and pursuing an ag career, do as many internships as you can," Zack Stuller said. "Expose yourself to as much as possible. Just because I don't farm pomegranates doesn't mean I won't sit down and have a two-hour conversation with a guy about farming pomegranates."

The Stullers also recommend the Farm Bureau Young Farmers and Ranchers program, which offers opportunities for networking, leadership and social activities.

"It was very important for us to get involved in YF&R, to go to the meetings and connect with other people that are like us and that have the same kinds of interests that we're passionate about," Samantha Stuller said.

The Stullers recently moved to Exeter, where Zack wants to plant 10 acres of walnuts.

"I'm realizing this isn't a get-rich-quick deal. Maybe when I'm 60 years old I'll have a couple hundred acres and enough money to send my kids to college. That's what I'm after," he said.

"Ten acres with a house is more than I could imagine at this point in my life," Samantha Stuller said. "It is a good place to raise our family, enjoy the peace and quiet, and have some room to do what we want."

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.