YF&R: Napa County couple aims to help other young farmers

Issue Date: February 26, 2020
By Kevin Hecteman
Johnnie White, left, is president of the Napa County Farm Bureau. He and his wife, Kendall, have been active in YF&R and other advocacy efforts.
Photo/Kevin Hecteman

If you want to farm in Napa County, first, you need some land.

Johnnie White figures land in his area averages $300,000 per acre. Multiply that by the 20 or so acres one needs to make a good living, and the minimum buy-in fee hits $6 million.

"Our commodity prices are very good and can support that high cost, but it's being able to get such huge loans to be able to get started, because everything is so expensive," White said. "The joke here is, it takes a fortune to make a fortune in the Napa Valley."

Barriers to entry for younger agricultural professionals help motivate the work White and his wife, Kendall, do in Farm Bureau and Young Farmers and Ranchers. Their efforts were honored with the Excellence in Agriculture Award at the 101st California Farm Bureau Federation Annual Meeting.

"I think it's a big honor to be selected as a California Excellence in Ag Award winner, knowing that people recognize the work and leadership that we've done for agriculture through the Young Farmers and Ranchers," Johnnie White said.

Kendall White noted that the award also is about "realizing too that you don't have to have a farm to be considered, because that's something that we've always wanted but haven't been able to attain yet."

Johnnie White is a sixth-generation farmer; Wooden Valley, east of Napa, is named for his ancestor John Wooden. He works as a vineyard manager along with his father, Johnny, and serves as president of the Napa County Farm Bureau.

Growing up, Johnnie wanted to be a firefighter; today, he's a volunteer fire captain in St. Helena.

Johnnie was active in Future Farmers of America in St. Helena while growing up. A Napa County Farm Bureau director, Al Wagner, invited him to help start a YF&R chapter in the county.

"Myself and a couple other guys, we held a meeting and kind of kicked it off," White said.

Soon thereafter, he joined the state committee, becoming its 2017 chairman. The CFBF Board of Directors had bestowed voting rights on the YF&R committee chair at the 2016 Annual Meeting, and White was the first to exercise that power.

"I got looped in through him," Kendall said. She'd heard of YF&R while in college but didn't think it applied to her until Johnnie invited her to a couple of meetings.

"Then I got involved and saw the good that they do," Kendall said, such as an annual fundraiser with proceeds going to scholarships for students pursuing agricultural degrees.

Kendall grew up overseas, the daughter of an oilman. He suggested she get into agriculture but she wasn't sure what path to take until she went to her first wine tasting.

"That kind of sealed the deal," she said.

She earned an agricultural-business degree from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and went to work at a winery a month after her 21st birthday. Today, she works for a Napa County winemaker.

Along with the financial barriers facing beginning farmers, the Whites' priority list includes employment issues and engaging with local, state and federal officials on matters of importance to farmers and ranchers.

As with most other operations, Johnnie White's employer is shorthanded. The company pays above minimum wage to start, but with the overtime threshold now at 50 hours per week for employees of larger employers, the squeeze is on.

"That 10 extra hours needs to get made up by more bodies," White said. "We cannot find as much labor as we want and that we need."

His company is bringing in guestworkers on H-2A visas this year to alleviate the shortage; if all goes well, he said, the program will be expanded.

As the Napa County Farm Bureau president, White has been deeply involved, helping to start a political action committee.

"There's been a lot of land-use issues," he said, involving "lots of long hours and late nights meeting with supervisors and going over what will work for agriculture and what won't."

He cited the importance of "just having that relationship and being able to reach out to them."

The PAC, he said, makes his organization "a force to be reckoned with."

"It's important to us, important to our members that we have people that understand agriculture and fight for agriculture," he said.

Through YF&R, Kendall White got involved with the Ag Boosters at St. Helena High School. She joined the board and became its secretary. The boosters support the school's agriculture and FFA programs.

The Whites are parents to three children—sons Jackson, 4, and Colter, 2, and daughter Everly, 18 months. The oldest already has expressed interest in having his own farm someday.

In the meantime, their parents are working to secure the future of farming in their county.

"There are folks that make their living through agriculture but don't necessarily have their own operations that have positively contributed to the agricultural industry as well," Kendall White said.

(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at khecteman@cfbf.com.)

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




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