family background/Nereyida grew up on her family’s farm growing Concord grapes. She is pursuing her university degree in viticulture and enology and is a viticulture technician at Ste. Michelle Wine Estates and 14 Hands Winery. She is the daughter of Francisco and Victoria-Torres Ponce.
business/Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, Ponce Vineyards
How did you get your start?
I remember when my dad decided to buy his own land when I was about 12 years old, and one of my first jobs was picking out all of the rocks from the field.
Basically, we started from scratch, planting every grape plant by hand. We asked family to come over and help and made sure to have food available at the end of the work day. Being on a family farm and coming from a low-income family, you have to make what you have work.
Everyone has to learn quick. Dad’s advice was: “When starting off on your own, you need to start off little, from planting to pruning to harvesting to making the vineyard look beautiful.”
What did you learn on the family farm?
I learned a lot — from planting, putting in irrigation systems, putting up the wires, tying vines, pruning, growing and spray methods.
When it came time for harvesting, I started driving the gondolas for the harvesters — although I’m not a pro at this. As I got older, I gained responsibility working as a crew leader for the pruning crews and during harvest, to now working as the point of contact with the fruit processing companies.
Every job I’ve done came with an opportunity to learn the skills before taking on the responsibility. Since my dad worked for other vineyards, I relied on his supervisory experience, whereas my mother has the field techniques for proper pruning and care of the plants. It took months to learn from them one-on-one.
What about early challenges?
Obviously, there were times where I’d mess up and my dad would get upset. My parents had to work two jobs at the same time, and I wanted to learn more so I could help them.
When we started the family farm, I was always told, “We can do this.” There were moments where I was frustrated, and I wanted to give up, but I didn’t want to see my parents working so hard each day.
Working with family, you get critiqued all the time and you have to deal with it, or you don’t make it when you’re in business with family. I wanted to prove to my family that I knew what I was doing. You have to find your own way.
Why pursue higher education?
In the beginning, I didn’t think of working in agriculture as a career. Coming from a Hispanic family I hear a lot of, “You don’t want to work outside, go work in an office. Find an office job instead.” That was my mentality growing up.
But, as I saw the family business growing and progressing, I knew I had to take it upon myself to learn more. As soon as I graduated from high school, I knew I needed to go to college.
Knowing there were wineries all around Prosser, I shifted my college focus into viticulture. I knew right away this is where I could grow in the industry. My parents were unsure, and they took my choice as if they were making me work on the farm. I believe they were showing me how to be responsible.
What are the most valuable tips that you’ve learned?
To do well in this industry you don’t need to know it all. It’s OK to ask questions, you don’t have to feel that people will judge you for not knowing.
I remember calling my boss so much — so much that I thought I was being a pain in the butt. I came from a farm, I should know this, right? Also, just because your parents may be in the industry, don’t assume they know everything.
When you’re going into a job, prepare to learn from everyone you work with.
Why are you a farmer?
I grew up watching my parents and I knew I wanted to be the one to own the land and provide a better living to my family. I’ve always thought about growing a business and working with people who care about grapes.
It’s something that I love. I work with other professionals in this industry and learn other opinions all to find better solutions to certain situations. I’ve been doing this since I was 14.
I have love for this industry because our family gets to work together. I know this will be one way my family will always be together.
What would you tell other young growers?
If you think you want to learn more about this career, then go to an ag class or get a job in the industry. You aren’t going to start off being the boss; no one is.
I had to work and learn to step up to be a manager. Appreciate what is being given to you as a responsibility. If you give this industry a chance, I’m pretty sure you’ll want to make ag your career.
– TJ Mullinax