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Heritage: Passion fuels Talley Farms toward fourth generation

For Talley Farms, it is passion, not pressure, that is lifting the successful agricultural company toward a fourth generation of family ownership.

“If you don’t have passion, it won’t work,” said 49-year-old Brian Talley, president of Talley Farms.  

Talley’s grandfather, Oliver Talley, planted the operation’s first vegetable seeds in 1948 in Arroyo Grande, CA. Oliver and his wife, Hazel, had two sons, Don and Kenneth, who were born in 1940 and 1946, respectively.  Oliver-beans-1950sTalley Farms’ late patriarch, Oliver Talley, next to a bean field in the 1950s. He started the firm in 1948.

The next four decades saw the family consistently purchase farmland, expand its vegetable mix and build today’s thriving 2,000-acre operation.

The firm now involves Talley Farms, Talley Vineyards and Talley Farms Fresh Harvest.  Meanwhile, the late Don Talley’s nephews, Todd and Ryan, are Talley Farms’ chief financial officer and director of farming operations, respectively. Don Talley’s widow, Rosemary Talley, is Talley Farms’ corporate secretary.  

Don’s son, Brian Talley, said working with his cousins Todd and Ryan is a very positive experience. “We trust each other, get along great and have shared values.”    

The largest-volume commodities grown, packed and shipped by Talley Farms are Bell peppers, wine grapes, napa cabbage, lemons, avocados, spinach and cilantro.1980s-oliver-hazelOliver and Hazel Talley celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary in the late 1980s.   California’s moderate Central Coast allows Talley Farms to grow and ship napa, cilantro and spinach throughout the year, while Brussels sprouts are shipped in the winter.

Brian and his wife of 20 years, Johnine Talley, own and operate Talley Vineyards. These 192 acres produce critically acclaimed Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wines.

In June 2012, Talley Farms Fresh Harvest, a community supported agriculture program, was created. This led the firm to expand production to a variety of specialty vegetables, providing local produce to local people. It has since flourished. Subscription members pick up their “Fresh Harvest” brand boxes at one of 50 different locations on California’s Central Coast, or have a box delivered anywhere in California overnight directly to homes or businesses.

Adjacent to its primary farm, the family created an exclusive and scenic housing community, Las Ventanas Ranch.  

“The unifying theme and concept for us,” in building the family business, “is quality,” Brian Talley noted. The company’s vision to strive for “excellence in everything. We have always tried to do whatever we do at the highest possible level.”  

Brian Talley said that a key component for family members to be part of Talley Farms is formal education.TFFreshHarvest “Education is a big deal for us.”

To be considered for a family business management position, a bachelor’s degree is required. Being a graduate of the University of California is not a requirement, but has become a regularity, as Brian, Todd, Rosemary, Don and Oliver Talley all graduated from Berkeley. Ryan Talley is a Purdue graduate.

Before taking a corporate leadership position, family members are also expected to work outside of family operations for two years after graduating from college.

Brian-Don-Rosemary-MarianneBrian, Don, Rosemary and Marianne Talley in a family photo the late 1980s. In 1993, Marianne died suddenly from a heart arrhythmia. Her father, Don, passed away in 2006. Rosemary Talley and her son Brian Talley are active company leaders. “We don’t want a sense of entitlement,” said Brian Talley, “and we do want family members to have an outside perspective to bring to the company.” Requiring job experience elsewhere also helps assure “that they want to be here. We don’t want them to be here because they couldn’t find something better to do.”

In addition to family members, Brian Talley said there are many very important non-family employees who are critical to the success. A plaque in Talley’s lobby recognizes many workers who have 20, 30 and 40 years of service.  

Shared values were developed for the third-generation owners through high standards that started with their grandfather.

Oliver Talley taught his sons that beyond offering quality products and service, a respect for people is also a very important part of a business operation.

The standard was “to treat people the right way, whether they were employees, customers or vendors,” said Brian Talley. “We pay our bills on time.”  1962Kenneth Talley, Don Talley and their father, Oliver Talley, at Don’s 1962 graduation from the University of California-Berkeley. Oliver and Don graduated from Cal, while Kenneth and other family members graduated from Cal Poly.

He added, “My personal mission is to take the opportunities I received and make it better and pass that on to the next generation. With my cousins, we all share the important responsibility to make this business stronger.”

Several prospective fourth-generation family members are in college and have a keen interest in the business.

As the family owners look to a happy future they also carry a burden of tragedies.   

Kenneth Talley, who joined the family operation in 1968, died of an aggressive form of cancer in 1976 at age 30.   

Don-early-1980SDon Talley in the early 1980s on the John Deere tractor he restored.Because of the vacuum created by Kenneth’s absence, in 1977 Rosemary Talley joined Talley Farms full time and assumed responsibility for produce sales.

“After my uncle passed away, she was real voice in the business,” Brian Talley said. “My father had really started the beginnings of the shipping program and started selling Bell peppers. My mom took on sales and marketing, and is still very active.”  

Another significant tragedy hit the family when Don and Rosemary’s daughter, Marianne, was working with fitness clients when she died suddenly at age 25 after collapsing from a heart arrhythmia.modern-TalleyTalley Farms owners Ryan, Brian, Rosemary and Todd Talley in a family field in Arroyo Grande, CA.

“That was a complete shock,” Brian Talley said of the 1993 tragedy.

In 2005, Don Talley was forced to retire after suffering a heart attack and stroke. This accelerated what had been a gradual generational transition but left the farms in the capable care of Rosemary, Brian, Ryan and Todd. Don Talley died in 2006.  

Talley Farms endured the trauma of the United Farm Workers activism of the 1970s, as the farm faced “significant UFW and Teamsters union activity,” said Brian Talley. “That was important locally. The companies that became unionized labor really struggled. As I understand it, the confrontation between the union members and employees and [owner] families was very aggressive and unpleasant, but we prevailed. I remember the union election, when I was working in the company when I was 12. It was overwhelmingly against the union” with a worker vote of 78-18. My dad’s philosophy was that he would match whatever the prevailing wage was the union was implementing, so there was no reason to join the union.”

The openness to treating workers fairly continues to this day. Brian Talley said his firm pays workers “the top wage rate and we offer the best benefits. This is a special place to work.”