All in the Family
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.
California’s Heartland Is Still Run By Families
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.
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.