January 14, 2020

2020 WG Chairman of the Board: Talley to ‘Embrace Change’ During Transition Year

While incoming Western Growers 2020 Chairman of the Board Ryan Talley does not expect there to be sweeping changes under his watch, he does note that it will be a transition year for the association and some change is inevitable.

“I am very excited for Western Growers as we bring on board Dave Puglia as the new president/CEO. My role is to be as helpful to Dave as I can be during this year of transition,” he said. “I don’t expect there to be major changes but I also hate to say it will be status quo. We are bringing on a new chief executive who will have a different management style and will see things differently. I embrace change and know that Dave does as well. This is a great opportunity to see our issues with some fresh eyes.”

For his part, Talley will highlight the role small and medium size farmers play in western specialty agriculture and will pay specific attention to this sector. “I am not saying that this group has been ignored by Western Growers in the past, but it is the sector I represent and this a great opportunity to use my platform to emphasize this group,” he said.

“Medium-ish” is the descriptor Talley uses to describe his family’s operation. The company was founded in 1948 in Arroyo Grande, CA, by his grandparents Oliver and Hazel Talley. Hazel hailed from Canada while Oliver was a Central Coast guy who came back home after graduating from U.C. Berkeley. He was not a farmer by birth nor education but rather entered the industry simply because that is the path he wanted to follow. He first farmed in the Los Osos Valley, west of San Luis Obispo, before starting his own company in the late 1940s in Arroyo Grande, which is south of SLO.

Oliver and Hazel had two sons—Don and Ken—both of whom graduated from college in the 1960s and joined the family farm, which was producing row crops at the time. Unfortunately, Ken died in the mid-1970s while only in his early 30s, leaving behind his wife, Karen, and two young sons, Todd and the aforementioned Ryan.

Oliver was in control of the family business through the 1970s, though Don and his wife, Rosemary, took over more and more of the management responsibilities. “My grandfather retired in the early ‘80s but I remember him as a farmer. I remember bouncing along in his vehicle in the fields with the distinct smell of cigar smoke and dust in the air,” Ryan quipped.

He also remembers going to work in the family farm when he was as young as 12 years old in the mid-‘80s. By the late ‘80s, Don’s son, Brian, joined the operation, followed by both Todd and Ryan in the mid-1990s after they came home from college.

Ryan went to Purdue University, graduating in 1995 with a degree in finance. He briefly entertained the idea of taking a position in the Midwest with American Express, but proactively decided that he wanted a career in agriculture instead. He came back to Arroyo Grande, joined the company on a full-time basis and began his unofficial apprenticeship under the watchful eye of Don. Initially, he worked in various parts of the company, including stints on the loading docks and in the computer room. But gradually, he spent more and more time in the fields. “Don was in charge and he took it upon himself to groom me to step into the role he occupied as head of the row crop division. He gradually gave me more responsibility and when he had a heart attack and stroke in 2004, I was ready to fill that spot.”

Ryan acknowledges that like most young adults, at times he might have thought his upward mobility was moving a bit slowly. But in hindsight, he does not believe that was the case. “I couldn’t have planned my journey any better than the one that was built by Uncle Don,” he says. “It was perfect.”

Today, Ryan is in charge of row crops, brother Todd is in charge of permanent crops and cousin Brian is Talley Farms’ president. As an aside, Talley Vineyards falls under the umbrella of the family farm but it is owned and operated by late Don and Rosemary’s side of the family. Brian serves as president of Talley Vineyards.

Ryan said the growing, packing and shipping operation consists of about 1,500 acres of row crops. In addition, there are the permanent crops, which include avocados, lemons and grapes. The avocados and lemons are sold and marketed through third party companies, with the grapes, of course, forming the core of the wine business.

Ryan said it is a bit different having the company’s row crops centered in Arroyo Grande as the operation is isolated from other growing districts in California. There are two other farming families in the same valley but other than that, Ryan said he doesn’t interact with other growers on a regular basis. “Being isolated is both a blessing and a curse,” he said. “As a medium-ish size farm we can’t be on the cutting edge of technology…at the tip of the spear, so to speak. And with only two other farmers in the area, we don’t always see the innovation and new technology going on in the industry.”

He said keeping up with new technology is an important part of his job and one of the big advantages of being intimately involved with Western Growers. Ryan inherited that connection from his Uncle Don, who was very involved in the organization, along with Rosemary, for many, many years. Ryan’s first involvement came during the year Don Talley received the association’s Award of Honor in 2004.

He said another disadvantage related to the company’s location is its lack of access to labor. Santa Maria, which is 30 miles away, is home to most of the area’s farmworkers. “Why should they drive 30 miles to work for us when they can work closer to home,” he asked rhetorically. “I don’t blame them. So we have had to get very involved with H-2A utilization. We’ve been fortunate that most of the ranches we have acquired over the years in our valley have come with houses on them. Today we are utilizing all of those houses for our H-2A workers.”

On the other hand, Talley Farms has built an impressive array of permanent company employees that have been with the company for decades. He makes it a point to be in the fields as often as possible riding around with the various managers. “Some of these people were here when I was working for the company as a 12 year old,” he said.

Despite hurdles that need to be cleared, Ryan is optimistic about the continued leading role California will play in the specialty crop industry. “I’m a glass half full kind of guy,” he said. “Is it challenging (to grow in California) and are there more and more challenges than there once were? Most definitely. But farmers adapt. That is a very important aspect of who we are in California. And, in fact, that is a very important reason why Don before me, and I am involved in the industry. I want to be a participant (in change) not just a spectator. As chairman, I want to sit down with the people who are proposing changes that will impact us so they can put a face to farming and I can let them know how their changes will impact me.”

On the personal front, Ryan and Christina Talley have five children ranging in ages from 14 to 36. Their three oldest are sons—Byron, Grant and Elliott—followed by two daughters, Catherine and Caroline. Grant has joined the family business and is being groomed in a management position in the fresh harvest division, and is also learning as much as he can about organic farming. Byron is currently involved in a family business on his mother’s side, managing mini-storage facilities. Ryan said the three Talley members in his generation established a rule that the fourth generation had to gain experience outside of Talley Farms before joining the family farming company.

All of his five children have worked on the farm during summers since they were 12 years old, following a family tradition. “It was an important part of my childhood and taught me a lot of responsibility, including discipline and the value of the dollar,” he said. “Being in agriculture, we have a unique circumstance to pass that on to our children and we are doing so. My kids don’t come and ask if they can have money to buy a $200 pair of jeans. They know how many hours of work it takes to buy those jeans.”

For fun, the family enjoy outdoor activities such as spirited family tennis matches. Ryan has also introduced each of his kids to fly fishing and backpacking, two of his favorite pursuits.