family background/ Sydney graduated from Washington State University and is the viticulturist and safety director for Goose Ridge Vineyard. She is a fourth-generation farmer and the daughter of Kelly and Kirk Rathbun.
grower/Benton City, Washington
business/Goose Ridge Vineyard
How did you get your start?
I grew up farming with our family on the site where Goose Ridge Vineyard was developed. We used to grow hay and alfalfa and, at one time, were in the orchard business. I went into college intent on learning about agriculture, and when I started at Washington State University I was pursuing an ag economics major.
That was what my dad was — a farmer — and it made sense at the time. After I learned that major was in the college of economics, I made the switch because I preferred being in the college of agriculture.
I changed my major to ag technology and production management, and those classes, my fellow classmates and everything I learned has helped me after college.
What were some of your first jobs after college?
Once out of college, I joined Northwest Farm Credit as a financial specialist in Spokane, Washington, and then worked for Monsanto in one of their research facilities and did a little traveling with them.
At that time, my dad called me, and he wanted to begin growing wine grapes — but we’d never grown grapes. We were hay farmers and didn’t know what to do. I recommended to Dad that I should contact Goose Ridge about opportunities for me to learn from them to help Dad’s vineyard. In 2015, I joined Goose Ridge as an intern, working for them and for my dad, and trying to learn everything I could. That time was invaluable.
I learned the patience that is needed when growing permanent crops, which is very different from row crops. I also learned how to build a farm business infrastructure that will be sustainable throughout the years — to put something together and develop over time, over a generation.
What have you learned since your internship?
I’ve been learning about working with a permanent crop. It’s so important to keep that plant healthy for next season and make sure it has everything that it needs, all while dealing with weather events, plant viruses or nutrient deficiencies.
One thing that my dad’s vineyard and some of Goose Ridge’s vineyards deal with is the high salinity of well water, resulting in a hardpan layer in the soil. When that happens, then the vines cannot get the nutrients they need. It’s great figuring out solutions to many of the problems with permanent crops.
With row crops, if you encounter an issue, you can rotate it out for a different crop and make it through. But with permanent crops, each good day gets you to the next. I watch the weather now more than I have ever before in my life — I do feel like an old farmer.
What challenges are you taking on now?
Recent work has taken me into food safety, GlobalG.A.P., organic certification processes and all of the paperwork everything requires. When you’re doing it on your own for the first time, you hope all of the agencies will help you find a path through the process.
What would you tell younger growers who want to go into ag?
If I encountered myself while I was in college, I’d tell myself to relax. You’ll figure stuff out. About classes and academics: Get through them so you can graduate, but also take the time to get to know your classmates because they may become your resources after college. When you leave college, you’ll have book smarts, but you also have all these other connections.
When you’re in a pickle, you might reach out to someone from class who has the experience to help you through. Also, take a diversity of classes. For instance, you may think you want to be in my position, but really your interests lie in chemistry and more toward winemaking.
At that time in your life, you may not know what suits you. When I was 18 making decisions for my future, I didn’t know that I was going to take this direction. Find your passions, if you can. If you don’t know for sure, then get the degree and then spend time figuring it out along the way as you try different jobs.