Jarnail “Shabeg” Sekhon, ’04, earned bachelor’s degrees in public administration and accounting at Whittier College, then earned master’s degrees in public administration and accounting at the University of Hawaii. He returned to his home in Yuba City to found an organic farming company, Sutter Buttes Farming Co., in 2017.
Q: Why did you start an organic farming business?
A: It was something I always planned on doing in my life – going back to agriculture. I’m from an agricultural family. Being close to the land, watching things grow – those I was always struck by and liked. I always had in my mind that (eventually) I would (own a farm) like this, and (the) opportunity presented itself.
Q: When and where did you found Sutter Buttes?
A: I live on a four-acre lot, and I just used that. It’s only been a year now, so we just started.
Q: What do you plant?
A: Right now we (grow) kale, celery and spinach. But in spring we are going to (grow a variety of vegetables). We are going to have different varieties of lettuce, kale and chard. We (will) dedicate a whole acre of land to different types of tomato varieties. We will have a flower (garden) with gladioli, roses, dahlias, carnations and chrysanthemums.
Q: Whom do you sell your produce to?
A: Last year we primarily sold to restaurants and a wholesale company, Produce Express, but this year we are going to expand to various farmer’s markets in Sacramento, Davis (and) Marin from here in Sutter County.
Q: I heard you were thinking of bringing produce boxes to SCDS?
A: Yeah, I mentioned the idea to (Latin teacher Jane) Batarseh and (history teacher Sue) Nellis. If I am going to grow a lot of stuff, I would love to share it with the Country Day community.
Q: Do you have specific goals for the business?
A: I do, but it’s not going to happen for another couple of years.
The goal is to be the primary supplier of prime gourmet organic foods in this region. Because (in) my experience, a lot of farmers are out in Woodland, Colusa (and the) Salinas Valley. Sure, Sacramento is a farm-to-fork region, but if you think about it, they’re not close to us. So my vision was always “Whatever they can do in (the) Central Valley, we can do better here.”
We have better soil; we have better weather; we have better water. So (starting a farming business) was one of those things (that) I noticed nobody was doing. That was the kind of impulse that drove me into (farming) because it’s always something that has to be done.
Vegetable production, food security – without these, society wouldn’t function. Food security is a quintessential facet of society, and what I’ve noticed is that too many communities are letting that basic tenet of life be outsourced to other places.
Why should you eat cabbage that was picked in Salinas, put into a refrigerated truck for a week and then taken (to) whatever grocery store you go to, sitting there for days until you buy them and put it into your fridge, and tell (yourself) that it’s farm fresh? Those are lies! If you go to any grocery store and get (any type of) vegetable off that rack, you are buying vegetables that were picked at least a week ago.
So let me ask you a question: what do you consider fresh? Vegetables that I picked for you (yesterday) morning? Or vegetables that have been sitting in a refrigerator being driven probably from (the) Central Valley?
(Those from the Central Valley were probably) picked by indentured labor because a lot of laborers these guys use are undocumented immigrants. They are essentially being held captive. These guys don’t have payrolls; they don’t have background checks, so when they come to work, they’re pretty much at the disposal of the people who hired them. This is modern-day slave labor.
The (farming) industry is not notable. To break it all down, I want to bring pride and nobility back to farming in this country – at least in the state, in my community.
Q: What do you enjoy the most as a farmer?
A: Seeing life, I guess. Starting from a seed and preparing the soil, literally seeing your food come to fruition. The word “fruition” literally means “the fruit of labor,” (and) I literally see that. I see my kale sprout out of the ground and grow to full size every day. That’s the reward of the experience for me.
Q: What are some challenges you face with farming?
A: The biggest challenge I would say is setting up supply chains with people who want to buy. When you start out new, it’s really just opening the door. When you open the door and get that one client and that client refers you to others, it just snowballs. Once people know what you have, they’ll find you.
The genesis of any big project is always the biggest challenge. A lot of it is just trial and error. We tried growing dahlias last year, (but the client) didn’t take them because I didn’t plant the tubers correctly. So it’s from your failures (that) you learn to succeed.
There are daunting challenges for farming, but I’m in the produce game, and selling produce is much easier than, say, cheesemaking. Because if you have to process something, the federal and state regulations are just a nightmare. All I’m doing is growing organic produce. That literally means I buy seeds, plant (them in) the ground, water (them) and whatever grows is my (product).
If you are in the processed foods game, there are a lot more (issues) you have to deal with than organic produce, so I am very fortunate. When you talk about challenges, they could be a lot worse.
Q: What’s most important in the process of opening up a farm?
A: First things first, you gotta have land. I was lucky. Since I own four acres, I converted my home into my farm. Right off the bat, I was fortunate – I got the space to do it.
The biggest challenge to starting a farm is land. What’s the climate on the land? Where is your water source? What’s the water quality?
If you don’t have (it), land is expensive. One acre of land here in California costs close to $30,000. Fifteen years ago, it was around $8,000. Back then, if I had $40,000, I could buy a 12-acre parcel, and you could grow a lot of stuff on 12 acres. If you diversify it right, plan everything out, with 12 acres, you could make it big.
Land doesn’t depreciate. If you buy a piece of land, it’s only gonna get more expensive. Even if you don’t do anything with the land you buy, you could always sell it back.
The world’s richest people are landowners. Do you know who Elon Musk borrowed money from? Some dude who’s a trillionaire because his dad owned half of France! If you want to start farming and you have land, you’re ready to rock.
Q: Do you need any permits as an organic farmer?
A: All I needed to do is put on a sheet of paper what I’m growing. If you’re organically certified, which I am, what you are allowing your organic representative to do is to come to your property any time, unannounced, to check on your place. Because when you sign up to do everything organically, what you are promising is that what you do is organic every day.
The rule of thumb is a guy could come at any time of the year and make sure I’m doing what I say I’m doing. If I’m not, the (government) can revoke my certification.
Q: How successful is your business so far?
A: We just started eight months ago. Right now we are doing good, but we haven’t even started our main operations yet. I can’t really tell how things are, but from the looks of it, (this business) is very promising. I have more clients than I have suppliers right now.
Q: What are some of your best memories of your time in Country Day?
A: My most memorable time would have to be (my) whole senior year. It was just a (blast); we could park on campus and go (off campus) if we wanted. I had two free periods and a free elective, so for half the day, I wasn’t in class and I got to hang out.
Q: During your visit, did you notice any change in the campus and people?
A: Yeah, everything is different. The (Middle School Center for Science, Math and Technology) in the quad (is new), the (Matthews Library) is renovated, the lower school looks completely different, the middle school is completely different – basically, everything looks different.
Q: Are you still in touch with any of your old classmates?
A: Oh yeah, I’m in touch with a lot of them. I was at a party with two of them just yesterday.
Q: Do you have any interesting stories to share from your time at Country Day?
A: When I was in senior year, (former teacher Ron Bell taught) the (English 12) class. Well, we treated the class as “The Afternoon Hangout Session With Dr. Bell” with the occasional poem-learning.
Every long period, we would walk to Loehmann’s Plaza to have lunch as a class. Those were probably the best days of my life.
In my freshman year, which was 2001, that was Dr. Bell’s first year teaching us. He was teaching us “The Outsiders” by S. E. Hinton, and his approach to the book was pretty interesting. We always had the (feeling) that he was reading it with us, so every time we (would) talk about the book he would be like, “Uhh, what do you guys think?” Then (students) would ask about dramatic moments of the story.
The look on his face (said) “Uhh, I don’t know what you guys are talking about; I’m reading this for the first time too. I don’t have any insights.”
You would expect a teacher to know more than you do. So it was pretty interesting having the teacher read along with us; we were almost like a book club.
—By Ming Zhu