Family Farming: Generation to Generation
OPN Connect caught up with Kate and her father Mike Hitchcock to talk about their organic farming operations at Mesa Packing, LLC. and American Farms/G&H Farms as the two generations are now working side by side.
Kate Hitchcock and her Dad Mike Hitchcock
OPN Connect: Kate share with our readers about your education and professional background?
Kate: I am a fifth generation Salinasian. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in finance from Santa Clara University and shortly thereafter went to work at Earthbound Farm in Sales. In 2008, I joined the family and went to work at Mesa Packing, LLC as the Harvesting Manager/New Product Developer. Along with the harvesting portion, I manage the planting schedule for American Farms/G&H Farms, which is over 9,000 crop acres in the Salinas Valley.
OPN Connect: In your role(s), what does a typical day look like?
Kate: Part of beauty of produce is the unpredictability and learning how to adapt to challenges. Generally, I will check on crews and trials in the morning and in the afternoon, I will be at the office. Our operations range in location anywhere from Salinas to King City to Hollister. I always think my truck is my office!
OPN Connect: What put your family farm on the road to organic farming?
Kate: I vividly remember the first time I saw spring mix—I was in 2nd grade and my dad brought home a Ziploc bag of spring mix. He said quote “This will be the next thing.” Here we are and spring mix is a household name.
OPN Connect: How many years has your family been involved in producing organic crops?
Kate: Over twenty years via Mission Ranches and 15 years with American Farms.
OPN: Connect: What have you seen as the biggest changes, opportunities in the category: i.e. farming, consumer, regulation?
Kate: I have seen how food safety first hand has evolved especially with increased transparency in our industry. There has been increased traceability and have seen the evolution of consumers wanting to know the story of the produce-where it is coming from, what is applied on it and who grew it. Lastly, I have seen how technology can combat some of our problems the industry is facing: such as labor shortages, water regulations, ever-changing food safety regulations. We must constantly look for opportunities to be more effective, efficient while remaining sustainable.
OPN Connect: As a next generation farmer, how do you want to leave your mark on organic farming?
Kate: Ultimately, I would like to make organics available, accessible and affordable to everyone. I would like to leave something better than I have found it, essentially being a steward of the land.
OPN Connect: Do you have a mentor and how have they helped you with your career?
Kate: I have numerous mentors who have helped me with my career. Just to name a few: My father has inspired me to be tenacious, challenged me to think unconventionally and adapt to challenges that arise in the ever-changing agribusiness. I have admired the partnership that was formed with my David Gill, Stan Pura, John Romans and my father for they have shown how different perspectives can work together to achieve a common goal. Lastly, Amy Pemberton is a pioneer, trailblazing the path for growers and retailers in the organic farming industry.
OPN Connect: What generation of farmer in Salinas valley are you Mike? Who got you into this business?
Mike: I am first generation farmer----my dad was a banker and my mom was stay at home mom. My cousins were involved in farming and I seem interested and saw opportunities. Regarding organics, I was fortunate to have Stan Pura and John Romans as partners.
OPN Connect: What were the early days of growing organics like on your farms, and where did you look for guidance, knowledge and resources that it took to grow organics?
Mike: My alma-matter, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, slogan was learn-by-doing. Organics involved a lot of trial and error.
OPN Connect: US Surveys state that the average age of an organic farmer is 60 to 65. You have brought Kate and other family members back to the farm. What have you seen as the biggest changes in doing so?
Mike: It is great to see the younger generation become more involved and bringing a new perspective to the industry and to our business.
OPN Connect: Did you ever think you would see the day when Organics would be so popular for consumers across the country?
Mike: Knowing that Salinas vegetable farmers played a key role in building the supply for organic consumers makes me feel proud that I can be counted as one of those that helped to make this happen. It is amazing to see the growth and success of this category and I think that this segment will continue to grow as we develop more unique crops to serve the marketplace.
OPN Connect: What keeps you up at night?
Mike: Availability of a constant workforce, water and government regulations to name a few.
OPN Connect: What words of wisdom do you share with Kate about her career and what you have learned along to way that can help her?
Mike: My philosophy is to always keep an open mind, be yourself, don’t be afraid to ask questions and bring new ideas to the table.