PHOTO: Welty Mandarins
Farmers: James and Michelle Parker
Location: Oroville, Calif.
Specialty: Mandarin oranges and value-added products
Welty Mandarins, a mandarin-orange orchard located in California’s Sacramento Valley, got its start in the early 1960s with J.D. Welty, a retired tunneler who decided to plant some fruit trees in bare grazing land. After much searching, he settled on Owari Satsuma mandarins and painstakingly bud-grafted cuttings to trifoliate rootstock that provided additional weather and disease protection to the trees. By 1964, he had 1,000 trees and began planting an even larger orchard.
Fast-forward 50 years: James and Michelle Parker, were living in New England but their hearts were calling them back west—James has a horticulture degree from Oregon State University—and Welty Mandarins was for sale. Taking a risk, the couple purchased the farm sight unseen, selling their house and driving their four kids across the country, trading urban Connecticut for rural California.
Since purchasing the farm, the Parkers have begun to offer value-added products made with their oranges, including soaps, lip balms, marmalade and orange honey, in addition to the fruits themselves. They’d also like to eventually broaden out beyond focusing solely on mandarins: “It’s our intention to diversify our farm to a larger extent in the likely event that we’ll eventually have catastrophic fruit loss, either because of cold weather freezing the fruit or excessive rain that causes rot,” Michelle Parker says.
The Parkers consider the development of online sales, successful grassroots marketing and product diversification some of their biggest successes to date.
Their biggest challenge is James having to balance the bulk of the farm operation along with a full-time job as a forester for a local electrical utility company. Like many small-scale farmers, Welty Mandarins isn’t yet at the point that James can quit his full-time job and farm exclusively, but they hope that within the next five to seven years, their farm will continue to thrive and expand, and James will be farming full-time.
To anyone thinking about farming, the Parkers offer a word of caution:
”It’s a lot of hard work and long hours and definitely only for some folks. The romantic notion of spending your time tending your beautiful farm in the rolling countryside can evaporate quickly as the long, hot summers take their toll on your body, your enthusiasm and your farm.”
They also recommend, perhaps more importantly, that any new small-scale farmer slowly work their way into it by having a second form of income. Crushing debt from overextending your finances has killed far more small-scale farms than any insect or disease.