With the vast majority of farms in the U.S. being family-owned, the intricacies of generational farming and transitioning the family business are important to the industry. According to the latest statistics from USDA, 96% of farms in the nation are family-owned. That means at some point, nearly every farmer in the country will be faced with the role of either passing down the farm or taking on the family business.
Mallvinder Kahal grew up working on his family’s Madera County almond orchard, but he says it took him awhile to decide the farm is where he wanted to be. After high school, Kahal attended UCLA, where he started out as a biochemistry major.
“My parents really wanted me to be a doctor and my sisters were in medical school at the time,” he said.
During his first two years at the university, he became an emergency medical technician. He says that was when he decided it was not the future he wanted. After a discussion with his brother, he changed his major to environmental science and prepared for a career in agriculture.
“I was basically put at the bottom of the ladder (at the family farm) and told I had to learn everything from the ground up. And so that first six months, which isn’t that long of a time, but that first six months was pure machine operating,” Kahal explained. “Every year, a little bit more responsibility was added. My dad’s philosophy is that at the core of being a farmer is being a jack of all trades, and you need to be able to do anything you tell someone else to do. I was brought up that way, and even coming back from college I was forced to do stuff that I’d been doing already my whole life.”
Kahal said his father prepared him for one day teaching others how to operate the machinery, how to run the farm from the ground up and how to think like someone invested in the farm rather than someone just doing weekend chores.
He has now been back on the farm for about six years and his parents are now retired.
“They still have a say in things,” he said, noting that he likes the continued involvement of his parents because of their years of experience. “Don’t go too far because of the wisdom. It’s a balance.”
His experience with picking up the torch of the family farm gave him a new perspective and some advice for others.
“Both parties have to be happy. That’s the first and foremost thing. If one side or the other is not happy, something needs to change,” he said. “If I was talking to someone who was in my position five or six years ago, I would tell them don’t be shy to explore your full potential. Keep busy and ask questions. It’s easy for your parents to not always realize things need to be explained.
“As somebody who’s in there and trying to take over and be a successor, it’s really up to you to ask the questions,” he continued. “You have to dig for the information. That’s not because the generation before you is trying to hold it back. It’s just that when somebody’s been doing something for so long, it doesn’t cross their mind to explain it.”
For both sides of the generational handoff, Kahal recommends patience.
“It’s easy to get frustrated. It’s family. You’re working together. You want to do right by them, and they want to do right by you,” he said. “The ideology can be different. Approaches can be different. It’s really a balance.
“And then I would say for the parents out there, also be patient because generally when people are trying to learn and come in, there’s a lot of emotional investment,” he continued. “That can get the better of a person. It’s just patience on both sides. Take the time and have respect. I think that’s the most important thing to a successful transition. The second is recognizing the value each generation brings.”
Advice for New Growers
For newer farmers, Kahal also recommends trying several aspects of agriculture. He was a fellow in the Almond Board of California’s Almond Leadership Program in 2016 and learned to take on side projects while farming.
“Farming is one of those unique things where there’s so many ways to be a part of it,” he said. “During the last six years, I always had one foot in farming, like taking over the family operation, but I also had another foot in something I could do to diversify or vertically integrate. For example, my first year was just all farming. But I spent my second year training with a honeybee keeper. I had this mindset I could keep my own hives. For my training, I went out with him. I got my bee suits. I learned how to look for the varroa mites and learned how to look for the queens.”
He said he did not end up keeping hives, and in his third year in farming, he tried another project.
“I tried to start a butter company called Better Butter. I made almond butter with my sister. That was more of a hobby but it taught me a lot about the whole aspect of sales and the gap between farming and retail,” Kahal explained. “And it taught me there’s this huge gap. There’s this whole middle section. You can’t just be a farmer and then jump to retail. It taught me a lot about branding.”
For his fourth year, Kahal became a licensed real estate agent. His family had been looking at property and he was interested in learning how to broker real estate deals.
“The whole time I was farming and every time I took on a side endeavor, it really brought on this whole other network and this whole other perspective into my farming,” Kahal said, noting the side projects each brought different insights into agriculture as a whole.
His latest endeavor is the one he determined was more than just a side project.
“We decided we want to start up a processing plant. So, I was able to take away that even if those other things weren’t connected to this new project, it taught me how to take initiative on something new, how to learn and how to seek out people who are willing to teach you,” he said.
The family started running Atlas Almonds in January 2020. “I’m confident that that’s our new foot going forward, but I don’t think I would have got there if I didn’t take the initiative with the Almond Board, if I didn’t take the initiative trying to learn something connected to farming but really tangent to it like the beekeeping or getting my real estate license or working on the almond butter product we had.
“I guess what I’m saying is if you always have one foot in the door, trying to think of something you can add in addition to your farming, eventually, something will click,” he continued. “It may take three or four tries like it did for me, or you just might find it on the first go-around.”
Kahal also recommends that young farmers create a five-year plan to help set a trail to their goals. His five-year plan came to completion in 2020, and he is now considering his options for the next five years.
“I’ve had a crazy year. In 2019, we were building the plant, which took a full year because it was a new building and fresh construction. Last year, I got married and COVID happened. It was just chaos and chaos. So, I feel like the year just kind of slipped by me,” he said. “On the farming level, we’ve had a successful transition. We have responsibilities doled out between me and my brother. My parents are still involved to the capacity they want to be and it works for us because it’s helpful and they’re there when we need them. The farming is just exactly where we wanted to get to when we first thought about transitioning it. So now that we’ve kind of hit our stride, I think our five-year plan is to keep growing our farming, trying to match the challenges that are coming ahead.”
Sabrina Halvorson is the host of MyAgLife Daily News Report. Listen to the full interview with Mallvinder Kahal in the February 5th MyAgLife Daily News Report at myaglife.com or on the