F.M. Upton & Sons
Member Since 1979
A DUST BOWL STORY: In the 1930s, a young Findley Upton, his eight brothers and sisters and his parents arrived in the San Joaquin Valley to start a new life. The family began farming in Chowchilla. Findley, who was born in 1919, got married and soon joined the war effort. On March 13, 1943, he shipped out to Europe to serve his country in World War II on the same day that his son Kole was born. Three years later, Findley came home and started what would become the family farm.
AFTER WWII: When the war was over and Findley Upton returned to the San Joaquin Valley, his older brother helped him launch his farm a little bit north of Chowchilla. For the next 25 years, Findley grew cotton and sugar beets and leased some of his land for processing tomato production. He did all right, but found it necessary to supplement his income by being a real estate agent on the side. In fact, he told young Kole as he was growing up to get an education and pursue another line of work. The farm wasn’t big enough, he said, to support Kole or his three siblings.
AN EDUCATED MAN: Kole followed the advice of his father and went to Stanford for his undergraduate degree on an ROTC scholarship. That led to a six year career in the Air Force and additional education. He has an engineering degree from Stanford and a business degree from USC.
POST-MILITARY CAREER: As Kole’s military career was coming to an end in 1971, he really had no idea what he was going to do. “I bought a suit and started to apply for jobs.” But his father was in the process of expanding his farm and decided he needed help. Kole jumped at the chance, but reminded his dad that he didn’t know much about farming. Because his father steered him away from a farming career, Kole didn’t participate in FFA (Future Farms of America) or other farm programs as a kid. He was proficient driving a tractor and handling farm tools…and he was a fast learner. Soon his brother Kurtis also joined the growing FM Upton & Sons operation.
TRANSITIONING TO NUTS: In the late 1970s, the family farm made what would become a great decision to diversify its crop portfolio. “It made a lot of sense to grow a variety of crops,” Kole said, crediting Kurtis with coming up with the idea to plant almonds.
Today, FM Upton & Sons controls more than 3,000 acres with about a quarter of it being in almonds and pistachios. They also grow a good deal of corn for corn nuts. In addition, part of their land is leased to other farmers for lettuce and other crops. Findley Upton remained involved in the operation until his death in 2002. “‘You don’t retire from farming,’ my father always said,” reports Kole.
A FAMILY OPERATION: Today the operation consists of four partners: Kole and his brother Kurtis, as well as Kole’s two sons: Kole Jr. and Darin. Though Kole Sr. didn’t discourage his sons from getting into farming as his father did, he did tell them that getting an education first was non-negotiable. Both sons accomplished that task before joining the company full time.
GETTING INVOLVED: Necessity is called the “mother of invention” and it was necessity that drove Kole into the political arena. His father served on the water district board before him and when it was Kole’s turn, he stepped up to the plate and has been an active participant in water politics for quite some time. He serves on several water district boards and is an able spokesperson for the farm community when the need arises. “I feel an obligation. I do have an education and bring a different skill set to the situation,” he said.
A WATER FIGHT WORTH HAVING: Kole is very upset about the water debate and how it has been playing out. “There is just too much misinformation out there,” he said. “It’s reported that ag uses 80 percent of the water. That’s just not true.”
In fact, Kole said environmental needs — such as letting hundreds of thousands of acre feet flow into the ocean — use more water than agriculture and for non-productive reasons. “They are trying to save a fish that can’t be saved. Water is a public resource and everyone should be held accountable for how they use it.”
He added that the San Joaquin River Restoration Project, which also uses up lots of water for no good purpose, is also a bad idea. He places the blame squarely on the shoulders of political leaders who have failed to address the situation. Kole does see a light at the end of the tunnel and believes if Republicans can gain control of the U.S. Senate in 2016, better decisions will be forthcoming. He said new laws need to be passed to change the dynamic. While there have been some activist decisions by judges that have bothered him, he said for the most part the judges are just interpreting bad laws.
He said there are many legislators in the on-deck circle talking about doing something, “but few have stepped up to the plate.”
THE CURRENT DROUGHT: Kole Upton is optimistic about the future despite current challenges. “It has to rain sometime,” he says hopefully. He said FM Upton & Sons has survived the current drought by altering its crops and getting by with what they have. However, he added that another drought year will be devastating to many.
AMONDS OR ALMONDS: Like many in the Central Valley, Kole Upton pronounces almonds as “amonds”. He explains that when almonds are harvested “we shake the ‘…L’ out of them.”
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