(Pictured above: Celeste, Christa, Natalie, Johnni and Joe Soghomonian)
By Melody Meyer
OPN recently caught up with Natalie Soghomonian, Vice President and Director of Farming Operations at Three Sisters Organic, a third generation producer of organic grapes and raisins in Fresno, California.
OPN Connect: Tell us about the history of Three Sisters Farm.
My grandfather was an Armenian immigrant who started farming 40 acres in the mid 1930’s. My dad, Joe Soghomonian, began farming in 1960 with his father and he grew the farm to 550 acres. Dad joined CCOF in 1982 as one of the organic pioneers, and I started farming in 1998.
We grow a variety of table grapes: Champagne, Thompson seedless, Flame seedless, Crimson Seedless and Ribier. The wine grapes varieties we farm are French Colombard, Grenache and Carignane. We sell our wine grapes as table grapes too. Its complex as everything is farmed & harvested a little differently. Our production may be diverse, but our organic practices are all the same.
OPN Connect: When did you know you were interested in taking up organic farming?
I was dad’s shadow as a child; I would sleep on the couch so I could get up early and go with him on his rounds in the morning. I was always a tomboy and just loved being in the vineyards learning.
In college, I needed money and so I came to the farm to drive the tractor. Since I grew up on the tractor I learned from the ground up. The next thing I knew I was doing the books and running the crews.
I always knew in my heart that I would raise my family and live here, but then I realized I enjoy running the farm!
OPN Connect: What are some of the values you carry on in the Soghomonian tradition?
We take great pride in that we were on of the very first organic table grape and raisin growers. We were part of the pioneers of organic when there were only four people at the CCOF meetings. We have kept our integrity over the years when other organic growers have pulled out because of extensive paperwork or difficulty in organic production.
You cannot be an organic farmer if your heart isn’t in it and don’t believe in the cause.
OPN Connect: What are some of the farming practices you employ that make your grapes and raisins special?
My dad always taught me that quality over quantity is important. We don’t “over crop” the vines, meaning we leave less canes and get less fruit but with much better quality. This is because the vine can pour its energy into those grapes.
We pick late for higher sugar. Many growers harvest early when labor is plentiful and there is less chance of rain. We are willing to take that chance for higher sugar.
OPN Connect: What about your raisin production? How are they veganically grown?
We grow Flames, Thompsons and Zante Currant varieties. Some parcels are “veganic” which means that nothing from an animal has been used in the farm management. We use green waste instead of manures or compost. We have one customer that is entirely veganic so we farm certain blocks for them.
OPN Connect: You have two young children and your farm. How do you balance family life alongside running an organic farm?
I have two young girls, Mia, a 22 month old, and Alina, who is 3 months old. It can be difficult but I wouldn’t do it any other way. My girls already come out to the fields with me and they love it.
I am doing my best at maintaining Mother Nature’s home – the land- the way she intended, without using harmful chemicals. I know that when my family roams the fields I have no concern. That’s exactly why my dad went organic when I was out paying in the fields.
We don’t take shortcuts; you take a shovel and get the weeds out, you use beneficials to fight the insects.
OPN Connect: Tell OPN a little about your relationship with your farm employees.
I value my employees like one big family! They are my team and they value the farm as much as I do. In fact many of them are family, cousins, sisters and brothers all working together here. My full time employees are year round and we just couldn’t do it without them. They live on the farm and have year round work; many have been with us for 20 plus years.
The seasonal workforce is getting more problematic. We use to have crews that came back every year but that has changed, it’s harder and harder to find a regular returning crew of seasonal workers. So now we use a contractor for our harvest.