Sarah and Matt Alvernaz add a new generation to their agriculture interests
- by Christina DiMartino | March 18, 2010
"Here in the valley, we are immersed in agriculture," said 27-year-old Sarah Alvernaz, sales and general manager of California Sweet Potato Growers in Livingston, CA. "This area is rich in dairy farms, almonds groves and sweet potato fields, which my husband, Matt, and I grew up in the middle of."
During high school, Ms. Alvernaz became active in the California Farm Bureau Federation's Young Farmers & Ranchers organization. She remained active in it and in other agriculture clubs throughout college. She graduated from California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, CA, with a bachelor's degree in agriculture business in 2004.
Ms. Alvernaz met her 28-year-old husband when they were both attending Modesto Junior College. They were involved in the school's Young Farmers & Ranchers' organization, Cal Poly's Ag Business Management Club and the 2003 Food Distribution Research Society's National Champion Team. Their initial friendship evolved into a courtship, and the couple married in 2006. Mr. Alvernaz grows sweet potatoes with his parents, Ben and Debbie, at Alvernaz Farms in Livingston. He also produces 30 acres of sweet potatoes independently on leased acreage.
"Although I grew up in the sweet potato business, I am also deeply involved with dairy cows because my grandparents have a dairy farm in California," said Mr. Alvernaz. "I've always had a love for animals and for being outside. My grandpa tells the story of how he wouldn't take me with him to the farm until I was potty trained, so I trained myself. Cows are still my hobby today. I have registered dairy cattle, and I do cattle judging for genetic correctness."
Mr. Alvernaz was the head dairy cow judge at the San Joaquin County Fair in 2009, and he will be again at the 2010 spring event.
He received a scholarship to Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, for dairy judging, which was awarded by Cornell's College of Agriculture & Life Sciences. The scholarship program is an umbrella of the American Dairy Science Association. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in animal science in 2005. Today, dairy cows are both a hobby and a side business for him. Besides breeding and producing milk, he shows his cows in competitions.
"Until the summer of 2009, my career was in dairy farming," said Mr. Alvernaz. "Joining my parents on their sweet potato farm was something that we had been talking about for a while, and it was the right time to make the move."
California Sweet Potato Growers was formed in 1963. Its membership fluctuates from three to eight members. The cooperative was founded by Mr. Alvernaz's grandfather Joe Alvernaz, who was known as Sweet Potato Joe. It produces between 250,000 and 300,000 cartons annually, and it increases its volume each year. Its primary variety is the Beauregard, but it also produces red yams, white sweets and Oriental yams, which it ships under the "King" label. Most of the cooperative's products are distributed in the West and into Canada, but some product goes to New York and Florida.
"The sweet potato shortage this year, caused by heavy rains in Mississippi, Louisiana and other states, has caused us to ship more product to the East," said Ms. Alvernaz.
Her job at the cooperative encompasses several roles, including sales, accounting, managing production and employee oversight.
"I joined the cooperative in September 2008," she said. "I've worked in agriculture since I graduated from college. Prior to working here, I was with the California Tree Fruit Agreement, and before that I worked for Famous Software in Fresno, which provides agricultural software products and services for the fresh produce industry."
Asked what the couple likes to do in their spare time, Ms. Alvernaz did not hesitate with her reply.
"Get some sleep," she chuckled. "Our first child, Ethan, was born on November 16, so between work and caring for him, our days and nights are pretty full. Right now, we're focusing on enjoying him. We also love spending time with our family. If we're not working, we're usually with them or traveling to see family members who aren't nearby."
Ms. Alvernaz brings Ethan to work with her, which makes it possible for her to both care for him and handle her responsibilities in the office. She said that customers get a kick out of seeing the baby at the office.
"We also seem to be going through a spurt where all of my best friends are getting married," she added. "I am in a few of the weddings, so I'm spending time helping the brides."
The couple is also building a new house on the sweet potato farm.
"We moved to Livingston from Fresno so Matt could work on the sweet potato farm," said Ms. Alvernaz. "We wanted to be conservative in our plans for our new home, but we figure it will be the house we'll still be living in when our own grandchildren come along. It is next to my in-laws' house, so we are blessed that our kids will be close to their grandparents."
Ms. Alvernaz added that they would like to have another child in the future but are holding off plans for the time being.
Prior to Ethan's birth, the couple spent most of their leisure time with their approximately 30 head of dairy cows and activities related to them.
"We are members of the California Holstein Association," said Mr. Alvernaz. "We do a lot of breeding through artificial insemination and embryo transfer. The milk from our cows goes to either my grandparents' or a friend's farm for processing."
The couple said that with both of them now working in the sweet potato business, Matt being a third-generation family member in his parents' company, and Sarah running the cooperative, they are trying to live up to the legacy that was established by Matt's grandfather and parents.
"We want the cooperative to succeed for not only our own personal benefit but also to carry on the tradition," said Ms. Alvernaz. "We want the business to continue to grow and evolve for many years into the future. We have wonderful customers, and it's a joy working with them."
"We're real workers," Mr. Alvernaz added. "Between our work, the dairy cows, spending time with family and the new baby, we have pretty overflowing plates."