family background / Neil studied business and worked with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and maritime companies around the nation before returning to join his father, Tom Garrison, on the family farm about eight years ago.
grower / Sunnyside, Washington
age / 32
crops / Cherries, wine and juice grapes, row crops, corn
business / Farm manager of Dalkeith Farm
How did you get your start?
I grew up out here and was working in the fields pretty regularly, moving hand lines, sprinklers, all types of chores. Growing up in a small town in an isolated area, when I was older I was excited to leave and see the world.
I went off to college then got into the maritime industry working on boats offshore for a while. Through that, I was able to see and experience a lot of things away from the farm.
After a number of years doing that I recognized the value of what was here at home: from the lifestyle that it offered to some of the benefits of working the land and working with your family.
What helped you be successful in your return?
When I returned I had to learn everything about farming from the ground up. I read a lot of trade publications, textbooks — I tried to educate myself as best as I could on the things I needed to know.
My dad was a huge resource; he’s been doing it for 40 years, so he offered a lot of help when I started making decisions on the farm.
What was the first thing you had to learn?
Some of the things that I needed to get under my belt were irrigation steps. Water use, especially in tree fruit and wine grapes, was really new to me, and I didn’t have a lot of understanding of how it all works.
It was one of the first things I studied up on as soon as I returned home. Irrigation is a priority in the summer because nothing grows without water in the West.
You might spend your childhood moving sprinkler pipe or changing sets in an orchard, but really getting a handle of how that plant is using water in a professional sense is something I had to learn right away.
What challenges would a young grower have rejoining the family farm?
One of the biggest challenges was learning how to function professionally with your parents as a member of a business, rather than, ‘Oh, it’s my dad telling me to go do my chores again,’ mentality.
Figuring out how to work with a parent, as someone other than a parent, was a huge personal challenge that first year or two.
I had to think of my past work outside of the farm and think, ‘If this wasn’t my dad and this was one of my other bosses, how would I be handling this situation right now? Would I be getting fired up or would I take the advice and move on with my day?’
Once I started doing that, our workplace dynamic changed and things became a lot easier.
What are the benefits and pitfalls of diversification?
What we’ve found is each crop will have unique ups and downs in the market. Our strategy for dealing with that is to always have a couple different crops in production.
For instance, maybe you’re doing really well with the corn, and the wine grapes or the cherries had a tough year, but in the end everything evens out. Being diversified has allowed us to remain relatively small and still maintain the profitability in the business.
Diversification also forces you to focus your plan, because when you are overly diversified, it leads to real management headaches. We’ve found that recently when we had too many irons in the fire, we needed to bring the number of crops down a bit.
We eliminated apples because it was pulling us in too many directions at once. It’s a danger, because you really do have to be good at a bunch of different things. With some crops you can’t be just sorta good at it.