GUSTINE - A family farming operation with solid roots in the Gustine area continues to thrive today under the direction of a third-generation member.
Clay Groefsema, who grew up in the Lemoore area, today manages Groefsema Enterprises orchards in the Gustine and Waterford areas. He also provides custom farm management for clients in the Stockton area and operates a custom spray business.
The company’s home ranch on Orchard Road has been in the family since the late 1990s, when his father Clay and grandfather Ken purchased the ground.
“This is the largest of all our ranches. We keep all of the equipment here and move it around,” Groefsema explained.
Water was a driving factor in the family’s transition northward.
As a child, Groefsema said, his family grew mainly row crops such as cotton, corn, garlic and tomatoes, among others. Some walnuts and pistachios were grown as well.
But an uncertain water supply prompted the family to look elsewhere.
“It was some of the best ground in the state, but you weren’t sure if you had water day to day. The family left and re-invested up here. We had more water, cheaper water and a little more certainty,” Groefsema commented.
“I can’t imagine farming with that uncertainty of what your allocation would be every year,” he added.
After the family initially purchasing land in a district with marginal water supplies, he added, his grandfather and uncle purchased land in the Central California Irrigation District.
“It is gold,” he said of the more reliable water supply. “You can’t do anything without good water.”
Across the Groefsema Enterprises operation, row crops have given way to almond orchards.
Groefsema three years ago rejoined the family operation on a full-time basis.
“I chased a football dream after college for years, but knew I wanted to get back to farming eventually,” said Groefsema, who kept a hand in the family operation but worked in farm management for other corporations for 13 years before coming back to manage the local orchards.
His emphasis, Groefsema shared, is on using the latest practices and technology to maximize quality and production.
Decisions are made from a long-term perspective, he added.
“Every year we evolve and try to make things better,” Groefsema explained. “Being a farmer, you have to learn that from something you do today you may not see (benefits from) for the next year or two.”
Groefsema said he has implemented a number of changes since rejoining the family operation.
Many are aimed at improving water penetration and boosting fertility.
Groefsema said the almond industry has seen a number of fundamental changes.
Water management practices have evolved significantly through the years, he said, resulting in much more precise watering.
“All of our systems have soil moisture probes so we can see exactly what is going on when we apply water,” Groefsema told Mattos Newspapers. “We know what our demand should be, based on the weather, the age of the trees and the soil.”
Irrigation management practices are also a component of the pest control program in the Groefsema orchards.
Materials used in orchards have also evolved, he noted, creating targeted pest control as opposed to a shotgun approach that kills everything, he explained.
Through such management practices, Groefsema said, “we can keep beneficial insects in our orchards.”
Even with more tools to draw from and advances in the industry, management techniques and attention to detail remain essential to success.
“You can spend a lot of money applying fertilizer at the wrong time, and the tree won’t take it up,” he said by way of example.
The company also regularly samples soils.
“Our pH was a little off balance when I got here, so we had to build that and build our calcium levels,” Groefsema stated.
Those steps are investments in success that would not be possible through cutting corners.
“We can always get better. We put in more inputs, and you get out what you put in,” he emphasized.
The company’s commitment to quality includes attention to detail and placing a premium on taking the time required to be effective - without taking too much time.
Whether it is harvesting almonds or spraying orchards, Groefsema remarked, trying to be too quick results in damage to nuts or a spray application that is not as effective as it could be.
He is also an advocate for the almond industry.
“They are high maintenance but you can only grow them in California,” he reflected. “I think we take a lot of pride in it. They are pretty trees, and a healthy product when all is said and done.”
Advancements have changed farming capabilities and management practices through the years, but the lessons of childhood remain as strongly ingrained as ever for Groefsema as he goes about his work.
“Growing up, my dad would throw me into pruning crews for the summer. At the time I wasn’t a fan of it, but you realize how much hard work there is in these labor crews and what they do day in and day out,” Groefsema said. “My grandfather always said hard work builds character. You look back and appreciate those hot summers.”