Topher Chan sits in his living room cradling his infant son Connor tenderly while his wife Haley looks on. Topher’s sister’s two-year-old Parker plays happily at the feet of his grandparents, Wally and Debbie Chan. “We are babysitting our orchards for the next generation,” Topher explains. “My Dad spent his childhood riding around the orchard with his dad, and I spent my time rolling around in my dad’s pick-up and swimming in irrigation ditches on hot days. It was a great way to grow up, and now I see my two-year-old nephew Parker, wanting to go in the truck every day with his Grandpa. I already have a car seat in mine for Connor. I hope they have the opportunity to make the choice that my dad and I made, to farm.”
The Chan Farms story began on the banks of the Pearl River in China in the late 1800’s when young Chong Chan left his home and family to immigrate to San Francisco in search of a better life. After the 1906 earthquake he decided to forsake city life and join some of his countrymen working the orchards in the fertile Sacramento Delta. He opened a general store and obtained a bride from China. Their only child Lincoln was more interested in farming than shop keeping and began leasing and farming orchards while he was still in high school. Lincoln married his wife Minnie after only four chaperoned meetings, an arranged marriage according to Chinese custom.
Lincoln was unable to actually purchase a ranch until 1941, when the Chinese Exclusion Act, which forbade Chinese from purchasing real estate, was repealed. He built a home on that first ranch, their “Home Ranch.” As the years went by, another home was built next door for Wally and Debbie, who gradually assumed management of the ranches. Eventually, Wally and Debbie’s son Topher fell heir to his grandfather Lincoln’s home. An office, equipment shop, and garages are all in the same compound, and the heartbeat of the family farms pulses from there.
“I loved going out with my Grandpa,” Topher remembers. “He used to sneak up on the workers to make sure they were handling every single tree in the right way.”
“He was ornery,” Wally chimed in, remembering his dad. “It was his way, or the highway! Today we take quite a different approach with our workers.”
In fact, over the years Wally, and now Topher, have taken a different approach to many things. “Our family personifies sustainability, Topher declares, waving his hand toward the orchard outside. “Our ranch is living proof that we are evolving constantly.”
“For instance, we are converting to micro irrigation to conserve water. We have adopted Integrated Pest Management (IPM) procedures that include trapping insects to determine optimum times to spray. Over the years pear growers have sponsored research leading to softer chemicals that are specific to a targeted pest or disease and are not harmful to the environment, enabling us to establish “good insects” in the orchards.
“We use natural pheromones for mating disruption so coddling moths (the major cause of worms) can’t reproduce. We monitor our fertilizer applications and our surface water to avoid harmful nutrient run-off. All these things help us to bring in a healthy crop and leave the ground as good, or better than it was before.”
Topher, a recent graduate of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, went to college with “an open mind.” He earned a degree in Environmental Horticulture, interviewed with several landscape architects, and went to work in that business. “Then I came home for the harvest. I looked around and realized that everything I wanted was right here,” he recalls with a pensive smile.
“Some of our trees are over 130 years old and still in full production. If we continue to care for the land the way my grandfather and father have so far it will continue to flourish and produce.” Topher continues.
“People think farming is just playing in the dirt, but it will never be that way again. We also have to pay attention to things my grandfather never imagined: regulations, compliance with laws that are often passed by people who don’t understand agriculture, detailed documentation of routine cultivation procedures, and government and customer audits. Our goal is to assure the welfare of our workers and protect the environment.”
“We have modern technology to help us do it all better, safer, and more efficiently, but our greatest advantage is the education we got on the farm from our fathers. It is the gift of independent thinking. We will give it to my son and his generation. We will teach them how to nurture and create from the soil, how to fix things, how to solve problems. I would love to see them grow up like my sisters and me, their grandpa, and their great grandpa, and have the ability to make the choice to farm.” Topher rests his case, with the look of a man at peace with his choices.