Second generation Kern County, Calif., farmer Charlie Fanucchi reaches for a white paper bag on the console of his SUV. He pulls out four small carrots. They are about the size of a new pencil — still a few weeks away from harvestable size. They will add circumference by the time they are ready to dig for market. However, length is the most important factor with the carrot type the Fanucchi family grows. Baby carrots.

“A good baby carrot is one you can get four cuts from,” Fanucchi explains moving his spread thumb and forefinger down the small carrots to see how close the crop is to four cuts per carrot.

When Fanucchi started farming with his family after graduating from Fresno State University almost 35 years ago there was no crop called baby carrots.

Baby carrots are one of the most successful snack vegetables ever introduced to the American consumer. It was created in Kern County, the same place where Acala cotton was developed almost 80 years ago.

Carrots and cotton are just two of the 15 crops Fanucchi farms with his brothers, nephews and daughter under the names of Poso Ridge and Tri-Fanucchi Farms.

For much of Fanucchi's agriculture career, he has been active outside the turn rows in an array of organizations from California Beet Growers Association to the Bakersfield Production Credit Association. However, at 66 he is not slowing down. Last fall he became just the 10th board chairman of Calcot, the 77-year-old Western cotton marketing cooperative.

Besides cotton and carrots, the Fanucchi family farms wine grapes, wheat, onions, garlic, potatoes, melons, tomatoes, peppers, almonds and some others in the Mettler-Wheeler Ridge area of southern Kern County as well as in the Wasco area of the county, where most of the farm's cotton is produced.

Fanucchi is undoubtedly the most diversified farmer ever to sit at the head of the Calcot boardroom table. He brings to the Calcot chairmanship a broad view of Western farming.

The Fanucchi family's farm is a mirror of how times have changed in the San Joaquin Valley. Farming has never been more diversified. Much of that diversification has come at the expense of cotton.

Cotton acreage this year is about half what it once was. In its place are more high-value field crops like carrots and other vegetables and permanent crops like almonds and grapes.

Fanucchi farms 7,500 acres with his partner/brothers Joe and Frank; four nephews; and daughter, Catherine, who recently came back to the farm from a law career.

While the Fanucchi family farm is highly diversified, about a third of the farm is cotton each year, both Acala and Pima.

Fanucchi and his brothers are the cotton/potato experts in the family. The younger generation has taken the lead with the newer crops, a source of pride for Fanucchi, relieved that the younger generation is taking the reins of the future of SJV agriculture.

Fanucchi, the cotton man, admits he likes diversification and the permanent crops as well. It spreads the risks of farming.

His dad, Joe Fanucchi, immigrated to California from Italy in 1909. He worked for the famed Miller and Lux farming/cattle operation and farmed Kern County Land Co. land. He established the Fanucchi family farm in the 1920s and signed up with Calcot in the mid-1950s.

Charlie Fanucchi has been on the Calcot board since 1991 and was vice chairman before he moved up, replacing Arizona producer Bruce Heiden.

Calcot has seen some tough times of late with an embarrassing advance overpayment several years back that cost them membership; the hiring and firing of a new president within eight months and the lawsuits that followed; an ill-fated move to cooperative almond marketing, and controversy surrounding the development of Calcot's former Pinedale warehouse property in Fresno into a business park.

Nevertheless, Fanucchi did not hesitate to move into the chairmanship role. “I knew there would be challenges right away as chairman, and I looked forward to them. I also knew Bruce had done a good job and before him John Pucheu. I also knew I had the challenge of filling the shoes of some very capable men.”

The biggest challenge has been the battle over bales and growers within Arizona and California. With a dwindling cotton acreage in both states, competition among merchants and Calcot for bales and growers has become at times brutal. With Calcot's series of problems, a bulls-eye might as well have been plastered on the water tower of the cooperative's Bakersfield headquarters.

“With everyone hitting us from every angle, I knew this year's sign-out period would be a challenge,” said Fanucchi. However, membership did not drop significantly, except in two areas, the Buttonwillow areas of Kern County and a small area of Tulare County. However, Calcot picked up some new members.

“We had a larger sign-out after the overpayment than we did this year,' said Fanucchi. “I am pleased with the loyalty of Calcot's members after the problems we have had in recent years and with a new chairman and president coming in.”

Longtime Calcot executive Bob Norris took over when the board fired Australian David Farley.

The failure of several California agriculture cooperatives in recent years is not lost on Fanucchi. “I think part of the problem with cooperatives that failed was a lack of communications and not keeping up with what the farmers need and want.”

Fanucchi says Calcot will not make that mistake. “We will listen to growers and respond to their concerns and needs.”

He says he hopes Calcot members view their marketing cooperative as he does, an extension of the family farm. It markets the cotton he spends months growing.

“I think we have to trim and modify our operations to make sure we do a good job of handling growers' cotton,” he said.

With normal yields in 2004, Calcot will handle about 1.1 million bales of California and Arizona Acala, upland and Pima cotton this season.

Calcot has marketed more than 2 millions bales of cotton annually in years past, but Fanucchi said that likely will not happen again because Western cotton acreage will never again be what it once was.

Farm program credited

It would get even smaller without the federal farm program now in place. It has become a Herculean struggle every five years to get an effective farm bill passed. Fanucchi says the current one is one of the best he's seen because it provides insurance when prices are poor.

“When times are bad we have a safety net that can return the cost of production and keep us in the cotton business so when things become profitable again we can still be in the cotton business,” he said.

Getting money from Congress for farm bills has become like pulling teeth, and commodity groups will fight like a cornered wildcat to keep that cash.

However, California, Florida and other Sun Belt vegetable and specialty crop producers want the government's help, too. Western Growers is the leading force trying to get Congress to pass the Specialty Crop Competitiveness Act that carries a $3 billion price tag over five years.

Fanucchi has been a Western Growers director almost as long as he has been on the Calcot board and finds himself stuck between a bell pepper and a cotton boll.

“The specialty crop bill is a well thought-out, good piece of legislation. It has six titles that are all important objectives and should be accomplished,” he said adding that vegetable and other non-program crop farmers are not asking the federal government for direct payments like commodity producers receive.

“Specialty crop growers are looking for help in opening markets and in being treated fairly in trade issues,” he said.

Additional money

“There is a place for this legislation, but I feel it cannot take money away from the farm program. It has to be newly appropriated money,” said Fanucchi. Not every vegetable and specialty crop grower agrees with Fanucchi.

Getting new money out of Congress for agriculture will be a tough row to hoe.

Fanucchi said opening up the federal farm bill to fund the so-called “produce bill” would not only threaten the federal financial safety net for commodities, but it could open up the bill to more stringent payment limitations as well as more environmental constraints, said Fanucchi.

It is a risk the U.S. cotton industry does not want to take, even for fellow, struggling producers.

Fanucchi recites the commodities' argument that without a federal farm commodity program, farmers would switch to growing vegetable and specialty crops and flood the market.

“With the exception of almonds, it would not take many acres to get the supply and demand of most specialty crops out of balance and prices would tumble,” he said. Specialty crop growers need the current federal farm program to remain intact as much as commodity producers, believes Fanucchi.

He hopes there are enough ex-cotton producers on the Western Growers board who understand that and are not adamant about taking that $3 billion from the federal farm program.

“I also think a lot of the Salinas-area growers who have come into the valley to grow lettuce and other produce have a better understanding about the federal farm bill now that they farm on the west side of the valley in the middle of cotton and other program corps like wheat,” said Fanucchi.

Likes diversification

Charlie is a cotton man, and he doesn't plan on changing. “We don't make a lot of changes year to year on our row crop. Cotton acreage remains pretty constant. I suspect even if it did get to $1 per pound, we would not change a lot more of our acreage into cotton. We like being diversified, and cotton is part of that.”

He also knows that once cotton disappears like it has east of Highway 99 across from home, it does not come back.

“Farmers who go into permanent crops don't change back out to row crops,” he said. They change permanent crops.

Cotton acreage may have dropped dramatically over the past decade, but Fanucchi does not believe it will disappear from the valley and Arizona.

As long as there is a federal safety net, it will part of the Western agricultural landscape. However, Fanucchi adds that cotton remains viable also because producers are more efficient than ever before and new varieties and technology have reduced costs and increased yields.

Drip irrigation is part of that. Fanucchi has grown drip-irrigated cotton on as little as 18 to 20 inches of water.

He estimates he uses only 50 percent of the water his father used to grow a cotton crop.

“We are continuing to expand our drip acreage. We are putting in another 120 acres on tomatoes this year.”

Another new cotton technology that has reduced growing costs has been herbicide-resistant cottons, because they have reduced hand labor.

Pima has been a big boost for the valley's cotton industry and gives cotton a brighter future for the valley.

“This Pima thing has really taken off and the Supima group has done a great job in promoting. A certain percentage of people want high-quality Pima or any ELS cotton products and are willing to pay for it,”

Fanucchi's tenure as Calcot's chairman started on a positive note. This year's planting weather was the best in many years.

“Last year was bad. Yields were disappointing. Insect pressure was especially bad in the southern end of the valley. Pima did not do well. We are off to a much better start this year,” he said.

Now if only the market would do likewise. “When China starts buying — and I think they will — we will see a market turnaround. I am in the seasonal pool — that is how much conviction I have it will be a good year,” laughed Fanucchi.

Economics were on growers' minds this winter and early spring when Calcot hosted grower meetings throughout Arizona and California.

“Not much was said about the lawsuits or the Pinedale situation. Bob did a good job of explaining the situations to members,” Fanucchi said.

The new Calcot board chairman said the board is committed to taking the lawsuits to trial and has no intentions of settling. As for Pinedale, Fanucchi said development will sell out two to three years earlier than anticipated. “The projections are to sell out by the end of next year. It has turned out to be a good deal for us,” he said.


e-mail: hcline@primediabusiness.com