Moving It Forward: Farmer wants to involve more young people in agriculture


Issue Date: October 16, 2019
By Christine Souza
Santa Cruz County berry farmer CJ Miller says he wants more young people to become involved in agriculture, noting that in farming, “every year is different.”
Photo/Courtesy of CJ Miller

(Editor's note: This is the second installment of a three-part Ag Alert® series about different paths young farmers and ranchers take as they build their agricultural careers.)

Fourth-generation berry farmer CJ Miller works with his family as part of Royal Oaks Farms, a contract berry business in Santa Cruz County that grows organic and conventional fresh strawberries, blackberries, raspberries and blueberries.

After earning a degree in agricultural business in 2015 from California State University, Chico, Miller returned to the farm near Watsonville and has been learning all aspects of the family business. He also joined the Farm Bureau Young Farmers and Ranchers program for young agriculturists between the ages of 18 and 35 who are involved in various facets of agriculture, including production and business.

An active member of Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau YF&R and a director on the California YFR State Committee, Miller said he would like to see more young people become involved in agriculture.

"I want young people to be involved in whatever aspect of agriculture they want," Miller said. "We're very close to the Silicon Valley, so we have the Googles and the Apples and all the major companies, so if you're involved in computer science, that's great; what kind of applications can we apply to agriculture?"

Miller currently works in the farm office managing payroll and accounting, and said he hopes to become more involved in the production side of the operation.

"Agriculture is just always something that interested me," said Miller, who added that his great-grandfather started the business after having served in the U.S. military during World War II.

Miller described his grandfather as a role model who inspired him to work in agriculture.

"I grew up spending Sundays on the farm with my grandfather, who is definitely my hero and someone I look up to. We would go to breakfast and then drive around the ranches," Miller said.

Farming in the "berry capital of the world," Miller said strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and blueberries are harvested from April until about November.

"It depends on Mother Nature, but once we finish harvest, we go straight into planting. If we finish harvest in October, we're going to plant from November to the beginning of January. We're really a year-round operation," he said.

Noting that the Central Coast has the optimal microclimate for strawberries, Miller said about 50% of the family's farmland is planted to conventional strawberries, with 20% organic strawberries, 20% organic raspberries, 5% blackberries and 5% blueberries.

Miller points out that there's a bit of an oversupply of strawberries on the market, due to increased plantings and newer, higher-yielding varieties.

Berries grown at Royal Oaks Farms are mostly sold domestically, with a small percentage exported to Asia, Australia, England, Canada and Mexico.

Challenges for California berry growers, Miller said, include a lack of employees and concerns with water supply and quality.

"Labor and water probably are two major challenges," he said. "The labor force is aging rapidly, and we don't have a next generation of labor coming in. Workers know that they are in demand, so that, plus the state minimum wage increase and other regulatory issues, it's really becoming a struggle."

Noting that berry farmers are "going to have to figure out a solution," Miller said that could include automation.

"We need to have some mechanization, not to take jobs away but to fill jobs that aren't being done," he said.

Miller said his activity in YF&R, in addition to the networking and community service aspects, provides "a good avenue for talking about key issues that we are all facing."

"We get opportunities to meet politicians at the state, local and federal levels and express challenges and offer ideas that we have. A lot of times, I'll communicate solutions to the problems that we're facing," he said.

Recent years have brought many changes in policy and added regulations, Miller said, including implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act and regulations on nitrates that affect farmers. These added layers of regulation, he said, have made it an exciting time to be a young farmer.

"I've always told people that agriculture is probably one of the most exciting things. Every year is different in terms of policy and weather and production; no two seasons are the same," Miller said.

With the average age of a California farmer hovering around 60, he said, "We need to have the next generation of agriculturalists in California."

"We need more people involved in agriculture," Miller said. "Agriculture is not just growing crops, but there's emerging technology, policy and work in nonprofits. I'd like to get more young people involved in agriculture and hope that they realize the value of agriculture."

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.