Servando Rodriguez manages the production of 400 acres of apples and cherries and 450 acres of wine grapes for Sagemoor Farms.
PHOTO BY MELISSA HANSEN
For an immigrant who ended his formal education at the age of 16, Servando Rodriguez has impressively climbed to the top rungs of the management ladder at Sagemoor Farms. Rodriguez, with the kind of people skills written about in leadership books, can coax the best out of the farm’s more than 300 workers.
Sagemoor Farms is a partnership founded in 1968 located in Pasco, Washington, that produces apples, cherries, and wine grapes. As Sagemoor’s production manager, Rodriguez is responsible for 400 acres of tree fruit and 450 acres of wine grapes in two locations. He works beside Sagemoor’s general manager Kent Waliser and vineyard manager Derek Way.
Rodriguez joined Sagemoor in 1975 and has worked for three general managers, “lasting longer than they did,” he said with a smile during an interview with Good Fruit Grower. Forty years at one company is almost unheard of today when the average worker stays at a job for less than 4.5 years, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
During the early years of his migration to find work in the United States, Rodriguez traveled back and forth between California, Washington, and Mexico. He still has a home place in a small village of the state of Michoacán. He became a U.S. citizen under the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program of immigration reform legislation passed in 1986. He began as a tractor driver at Sagemoor, then learned how to prune and plant tree fruit and grapes.
He credits much of what he learned to Erick Hanson, Sagemoor’s general manager in the mid-1970s.
“I started shortly before Erick did, and I became his right-hand man. I had to learn everything from scratch, including English,” he said. “Erick had the schooling but not the hands-on farming experience. I had the hands-on but not the schooling. He could explain things in terms that I understood.”
Orchard and viticulture programs for Hispanic employees were not available back then.
Today, much of Rodriguez’s work involves sizing up the skills of an employee and matching worker to the appropriate job—finding who fits best where. “It sometimes involves trial and error,” he said, “but I can tell right away if someone is a good cherry picker just by how they put on the picking bag or approach the tree. If they start picking fruit at the bottom of the ladder, I know they haven’t picked cherries before. A good picker is easy to spot.”
Most of their cherry pickers are what he calls “professionals” who follow the cherry harvest from California. “We keep almost the same ones from year to year, but last year, we lost probably about 50 out of 250 due to problems crossing the border,” he said.
A professional cherry picker makes $200 to $300 a day picking 40 to 50 boxes, but inexperienced workers are lucky to pick 17 boxes, he said, adding that it takes two to three workers to equal one professional. The inefficient workers are a drag on his work crews because the extra workers require more ladders, more tickets to punch, and more paperwork and payroll accounting.
What’s his secret in managing a diverse mix of experienced and less-skilled workers?
“When I teach someone, and they can do it better than me, then I know I’m doing my job,” he said. “When I teach someone our style of pruning or thinning, I not only show them, but I explain to them the why of what we’re doing. I’ll show them two different apples and ask them which one they would like to eat—the large one or little one?”
To stress the importance of doing viticultural tasks up to Sagemoor’s standards, he gives workers samples of good and poor-tasting wine, and then shows them the kind of grapes that produce such wine. “They remember what that bad wine tastes like, and it’s easier to remind them of the quality that we’re striving for. I’m always surprised at how much they absorb when you give them visual examples.”
Sagemoor Farms is one of the state’s wine grape pioneers. Its first wine grapes were planted in the early 1970s when the wine industry was in its infancy—not long before Rodriguez joined. Producing high quality grapes is Sagemoor’s foundation, and Rodriguez works hard to instill the “quality” philosophy among the workers.
Sagemoor sells grapes to more than 60 wineries, and many have their own crop load and harvest preferences. Rodriguez has developed long-term relationships with winemakers like Marty Clubb of L’Ecole Cellars, Barnard Griffin Winery’s Rob Griffin, and the late David Lake of Columbia Winery.
“I listen to what the winemakers tell me they want, and then I tell them what I think we can do,” Rodriguez said in describing his relationships with winemakers. “I try hard to deliver what they want, and most of the time, we do.”
In February, industry peers recognized his extraordinary attention to grape growing, honoring him with the Grower of the Year Award of the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers. Griffin presented the award.
General manager Kent Waliser credits Rodriguez for creating a good work environment that keeps workers loyal. “His ability to manage people is rare,” he said, adding that if Rodriguez had been able to go to college, he could have had an upper management position, like a human resources director.
“Servando can negotiate like a used car salesman to get the best of any deal,” Waliser said, adding that to find someone like Rodriguez whom the workers trust is rare. “He can also use his skills to diplomatically navigate difficult situations with people so they feel good about the outcome. His work ethic serves as an example and provides leadership to all, and no one wants to let him down.”
When workers come looking for a job and Sagemoor has none, Rodriguez refers them to neighboring farms, a win-win situation for all. He’s also known to lend his own money to workers short of cash for gas or food. “Ninety-nine percent of the time I get my money back,” he said. But he told of one instance when a couple left for a job in Wenatchee without repaying $60. He wrote it off to goodwill, but six weeks later, the couple stopped on their way south to repay the money.