Bowles Farm is featured in the Cate School News
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Cate School News

All in the Family

All in the Family

Bowles Farming Company

The fall 2013 tomato harvest is in full swing under the watchful eye of Cannon Michael.

If the concepts “family farm” and “small operation” are inextricably linked in your mind, a visit with Cannon Michael ’90 of the Bowles Farming Company Inc. may come as something of a surprise. First, there are the tomato-harvesting tractors, audible well past midnight, methodically pulling thousands of tomatoes from their vines before they’re dumped into enormous vats and driven off for processing – at harvest time this is a 24-hour operation. And by dawn, the sheer size and productivity of the place are readily apparent: 11,000 acres of tomatoes, alfalfa, corn, cotton, and melons stretching in every direction, farm machinery coming to life, and a morning shift of workers arriving to run it.

“We are about as dead center as you can get in the Central Valley,” says Michael, speaking of the flat and fertile midsection of California – one of the world’s most productive agricultural regions, and home to more than 300 crops. And yet, in spite of the scale on which all this food is grown, most of the farms in California’s heartland are still run by families.

California’s Heartland Is Still Run By Families

The Bowles Farming Company is one of them, but, as large as it is, it’s just a slice of what it once was. Michael is a descendant of Henry Miller, once one of the biggest landowners in California and a man known to many as “the Cattle King”. By the time Miller died in 1919, he owned 1.4 million acres stretching from Oregon to Mexico; in fact he used to joke that he could ride the length of the state without leaving his property. Miller virtually founded the town of Los Baños, which sits about ten miles west of the place Michael and his family now call home.
“My great- great- great- grandfather is really an American dream story,” relates Michael, who knows it well from both family lore and history books. Those accounts tell the tale of a teenage immigrant from Brockenheim, Germany, who made his way by steamer to New York in the mid-1800s. The California Gold Rush beckoned, and with only a few dollars in his pocket, Miller went west, setting up a small butcher shop with another German immigrant in San Francisco.
Bowles farm“He was in the right place at the right time,” says Michael. “He was also very smart, and he worked hard.” Once the butcher shop was up and running, Miller and his partner began to raise their own cattle, operating large feed lots and buying more and more land on which to do so. With railroads running only north-south at the time – the coasts were not linked until 1869 – they faced little competition from the far side of the Rockies, and their business expanded. But despite Miller’s acumen, he didn’t look too far into the future. “The only thing he didn’t think about was succession,” says Michael. After his death, it took his heirs years to sort out his holdings, and much of the acreage Miller had assembled was sold off.

The farm where Michael and his family now live and work was started in the 1960s by Henry and George Bowles (his grandfather and great-uncle) as a spin-off of the original estate. Michael recalls visiting the farm frequently as a child, making the short trip east from his San Francisco home into the broad valley between the Sierra Nevada and coastal mountains. As many children are, he was mesmerized by the machinery; he particularly loved the tractor rides. Starting at age 13, he spent summers working the land — learning the irrigation system, operating farm equipment, and getting hands-on experience in the fields of a large farming operation. A student at Cate at the time, he recalls that the Spanish he learned in the fields needed some work when he returned in the fall. “Jeff Barton used to have to reprogram me,” he says.

Despite Michael’s early interest in farming, many years were to pass before he became part of the family business. He spent four years at UC Berkeley, where he majored in English, and then another five in Atlanta, working in commercial real estate.  Only when his great uncle George became seriously ill did the Bowles clan – remembering the lessons they had learned from Henry Miller ­– begin to formulate a plan for the future, and, after months of discussions, they brought Michael into the fold. It was a bumpy start.

Taking Over The Helm At Bowles Farm

“My first year here was tough – heavy rains affected some of our crops and we lost money. That got me thinking a lot about diversification,” Michael said recently. He researched other crops, settling on a reintroduction of processing tomatoes. They’re now one of the staples of the business, providing product for cans – chopped, diced, and paste – and for salsa that’s shipped all over the state and beyond. With a foreman and three managers for support, in addition to the oversight from company president Philip E. Bowles ‘69, Michael has grown into the key role of managing a complex farming business. After fifteen years, he’s gone through multiple seasons, gaining experience and confidence in what he does.

Michael likes to share what he’s learned and what thinks about his work, and likes to share it often. Using his Twitter handle (@agleader) he’s quick to weigh in on issues central to the family business, including water, regulation, immigration, and the environment. With more than 2,400 followers and 4,500 tweets to his name, he qualifies as an active participant. His profile reads: “Ag interests need to unite.”

“I like to engage folks who have different points of view,” he explains. “We need to educate people about how they get their food.”

His phone buzzes as he makes his way through the fields. “Hey, the head of the NRCS (National Resources Conservation Service) just tweeted me back. We gave him a tour of the farm yesterday. How often can a farmer get that kind of access?

Industry groups provide another platform. Michael makes frequent trips to the state capital in Sacramento, representing some of the groups he’s active with, including California Tomato Research Institute Board, the California Cotton Growers Association, and the San Luis Canal Company. “Most of that work takes place during the winter, not the growing season,” he says, which makes his kind of farm work a year-round job.

Bowles Farming Company

Cannon Michael ’90 and his wife Heidi in the kitchen of the family farm in Los Banos, CA.

Now Michael lives just across the road from the office his family built in the 1960s, where large windows overlook the fields and, in the distance, the mountains of the Coast Range. He and his wife Heidi (who grew up on a family farm near Bakersfield) are raising three boys: Nick (12), Luke (10), and Drake (8). Today is the Michael family’s turn to make lunch for the boys’ school, so Michael takes a quick mid-morning break to help Heidi make and pack 100 grilled cheese sandwiches (these without tomatoes).

The boys are active in 4H, and their father uses social media to tout their agricultural successes. “Boys’ lambs have been weighed. Shearing next,” he tweeted with a photo last May. Perhaps Henry Miller would have been proud–which raises the question of succession once again.

“They’re still young,” he says, “and I hope they’ll spend part of their lives out of the Valley, and out in the world.” But he also has hopes that at least one of them will return to the land that the Bowles family has farmed for six generations. Just in case, they’re starting small. The farm’s family-sized yield comes from a vegetable garden close to the house, which Michael encourages the boys to help plant, weed, hoe, and harvest. “I like for them to work with me in my garden. No matter what they do when they grow up, I want them to like their vegetables!”

This article was originally published on December 26, 2013 in the Cate School News, where Michael Cannon is an alumni from 1990.

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