Brothers got their start picking beans for Talley Farms. Now they run the family business

Brothers Todd Talley, left, and Ryan Talley are co-owners of Talley Farms (along with a cousin and aunt).
Brothers Todd Talley, left, and Ryan Talley are co-owners of Talley Farms (along with a cousin and aunt).

Brothers Todd and Ryan Talley started in the family business the way all new employees did at the time — by picking beans.

Both began when they were 12 and, like everyone else, were paid according to what they actually picked. “Both Ryan and I had small paychecks in the early days,” quipped Todd.

Over the years, the brothers’ work ethic grew, as did the family business. Today, Todd is chief financial officer and Ryan is farm manager of Talley Farms in Arroyo Grande. The farm is one of several family enterprises that include Talley Vineyards and custom homesite development, Las Ventanas.

Talley Farms began in 1948 when Todd and Ryan’s grandfather Oliver Talley began growing vegetables on leased acreage near Guadalupe. In the mid-1960s, Oliver purchased property in Arroyo Grande and formed Talley Farms as a corporation with his two sons Don and Kenneth. Kenneth was Todd and Ryan’s father.

Over the next decade, the family acquired additional land and began shipping vegetables. Today, the family farms around 1,500 acres, a combination of family-owned and leased land.

Talley Farms ships around 1.4 million cartons of produce annually all over the United States, Canada and Mexico. Its retailers include restaurants, hotels, as well as grocery stores such as Safeway, SuperValu and WinCo Foods. Its primary commodities are bell peppers, napa cabbage, spinach, cilantro, Brussels sprouts, lemons and avocados.

Talley Farms started a direct-to-consumer Fresh Harvest subscription service in 2012 called Talley Farms Fresh Harvest. The program ships produce boxes to customers in California, Arizona and Nevada, but about 90 percent of its approximately 4,800 subscribers are local. Harvest boxes include Talley produce, as well as goods from neighboring farms such as local berries and See Canyon apples.

Talley Farms Fresh Harvest, which picks up on both the “local food” and subscription box trends, is one of the innovations that sets the company apart, said Claire Wineman, president of the Grower-Shipper Association of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties. “Talley Farms is unique in both the diversity of fresh produce it grows and the creative ways it connects families with fresh, local produce,” she noted.

Talking shop at family dinners

The Talley brothers’ education in the farming business began around the family dinner table. Large, extended family dinners were frequent — and there was no kids’ table. “I remember hearing about market prices for the commodities we grew, the latest goings on with our employees who were like family to us, and the latest ventures that we were involved in,” said Todd.

The Talley family has always been close — but tragedy intensified that closeness. When Todd was 5 and Ryan 4, they lost their father to cancer. Family members stepped up to help, and their Uncle Don became a father figure to them, said Todd.

Ryan went on to obtain a bachelor’s degree in finance at Purdue University. Todd graduated from University of California at Berkeley with a bachelor’s degree in political economy. After college, both returned to the family farm and grew into roles that played to their strengths.

Ryan, who said he “enjoys being outdoors and really loves the people out here at the farm,” was a natural fit for farm manager.

Todd joked that he was “so accident prone out on the ranch that the family finally pulled me into the office.” He started on the produce sales desk after college, which educated him on “how our produce hits the marketplace and all that goes into making that happen,” he said. It was good preparation for his current role as chief financial officer.

The brothers, along with cousin Brian Talley, president of Talley Farms and Talley Vineyards, who Todd said is “like a brother,” run day-to-day operations at the farm. Their work relationship is mostly harmonious.

“For the most part, we tend to agree,” said Ryan. “But as I always say, if we’re always thinking the same, somebody’s not thinking.”

The ability to work through challenges has been fundamental to the success of this family-run business, said Ryan. “The beauty of our relationship is that there is high integrity and trust, where everyone wants what’s best for the operation.” He noted that there is also a high level of transparency, where nobody is “afraid to have those awkward conversations and nothing’s off the table.”

With such honesty, conflicts naturally arise. But the family handles them “in a mature fashion — no screaming, no talking behind one another’s back,” he said. “We are able to talk and work through it, and at the end of the day, find a path we’re going to use going forward.”

Equally important is the ability for family members to sometimes put business aside.

Every summer, the extended family goes offsite for a family trip that mixes business and pleasure for all three generations. For instance, two years ago they vacationed in Santa Monica, enjoying the beach, as well as visiting the Los Angeles Terminal Produce Market to observe how produce (including their own) is distributed to the Los Angeles area.

“We were encouraged to do this by an adviser specializing in family businesses,” said Todd. “Our kids get to see that the family business is a lot of work, but also a lot of fun and closeness.”

That work-life balance extends to community involvement.

Family members volunteer for churches, youth sports and other organizations. The Marianne Talley Foundation, named for Todd and Ryan’s late cousin, funds scholarships for college-bound athletes from Arroyo Grande High School. And the family’s Fund for Vineyard and Farm Workers provides grants to nonprofit organizations that assist San Luis Obispo County agricultural workers and their families.

Tackling challenges together

The benefits of working with family are amplified in challenging times — and there is no shortage of those in the farming business, said Ryan. “It’s neat to be able to go through that roller coaster with people you’re close to and trust,” he said.

Recent years have had their ups and downs for Talley Farms. Although the farm is generally profitable, last year brought a downturn when “the 5-year drought really came to a head and resulted in decreased plantings and lower yields,” said Todd. Depleted wells, coupled with a tightening labor supply, reduced yields by around 25 percent.

Although this past season’s rain has begun to replenish wells, it also delayed activities at the start of the season which “led to some large gaps in terms of supply,” said Todd. He anticipates “catching up in the rest of 2017,” with predicted production growth of 13 percent.

Also promising is the Fresh Harvest subscription program. Todd said the farm is focusing on transitioning all produce for that program to organic, and growing its out-of-the-area subscriber base. The brothers project a growth of 5 percent in Fresh Harvest sales this year.

The farm’s “most significant headwinds,” said Todd, are water, labor shortages and government regulation over things like water quality and labor. “We’re always looking for crops that use less water and require less labor,” he said. Ryan noted that there has been a growing shortage of foreign workers, on whom farms rely. He attributes this to changing demographics in countries where his workers typically come from, primarily Mexico and Central America.

Water conservation, by means of drip irrigation, has been in place at the farm for more than two decades. This is one of several environmentally conscious farming methods employed by Talley Farms.

It uses only non-genetically modified seeds and, about 10 years ago, began using mostly organic herbicides and pesticides. Currently, around 10 percent of the farm is certified organic. Within three years, which is the time it takes to complete the certification process, all crops associated with the Fresh Harvest program will be certified organic, said Todd.

The transition to organic farming is driven partly by consumer demand. But it is also done with an eye to keeping soils healthy for the next generation of family farmers.

In fact, many of the Talley family dinner table conversations these days are aimed at engaging the brothers’ own children and introducing them to farming and the family business.

“We see ourselves as having been blessed with a successful farming business that is the product of our grandparents’ and parents’ hard work,” said Todd. “Our goal is to steward that blessing wisely and pass the farm down in even better condition to the fourth generation.”

Talley Farms

Location: 2900 Lopez Drive, Arroyo Grande

Owners: The Talley Family

Principals: Brian Talley, Todd Talley, Ryan Talley and Rosemary Talley

Number of employees: 125 full-time year-round, 250 during peak harvest season in late summer and fall.

Annual sales, profits: Declined to disclose

Todd Talley

Job: Co-owner, chief financial officer

Lives: San Luis Obispo

Age: 46

Family: Wife Jill and three children

Hobbies: Spending time with family, hiking Cerro San Luis Obispo, and reading

Favorite dessert (after eating his veggies): German chocolate cake

Ryan Talley

Job: Co-owner, farm manager

Lives: Arroyo Grande, at the family’s development, Las Ventanas

Age: 44

Family: Wife Christina and five children

Hobbies: Coaching, fly fishing and outdoor activities

Favorite dessert (after eating his veggies): Chocolate lava cake with vanilla ice cream

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