The Sohnreys have been farming the land since 1875, starting in Kansas before moving west to Northern California in 1918. Today, the fifth generation continues the family tradition in Durham, Butte County, Calif.
Andrew Sohnrey’s great grandfather moved west and worked on farms before saving up to buy land. His grandfather and grand uncle followed also came west, raising catfish and growing hay, almonds, fruits and vegetables.
The current Sohnreys have changed the mix of crops a little, but continue to stay diversified, growing almonds, walnuts, prunes and rice. Almonds are their big crop, with about 800 acres devoted to it, while the other crops are grown on 200 acres.
There are five Sohnreys involved in various parts of the operation and in separate entities, along with some of their spouses. Andrew and his brothers Derek and Alex comprise the fifth generation, and work alongside their father, Greg, and his cousin, Mike.
“I worked on the farm all the way through school, but when I was going to college and began working full-time on the farm, that’s when I fell in love with it,” Andrew said. He is the oldest of the three brothers.
Different aspects of the orchard and farms are managed by everyone, except for Andrew, who focuses on Sohnrey Family Foods, which packages and distributes almonds and other foods.
The brothers learned early on that farming wasn’t a regular 9-to-5 job.
“Hard work was always instilled in us,” Andrew said. “There were sacrifices. We wouldn’t see my dad during certain times of the year, when he left before we got up and came home after we slept. But we really appreciated what he did. It’s a way of life, it’s not a job.”
His father and their cousin live on different parts of the farm, while he and his brothers live close by.
His generation has brought a lot more technology into the operations, which has boosted efficiency. With almonds, they introduced drip irrigation systems, whereas previous generations had worked with sprinklers. They also brought in systems to monitor soil moisture. The monitors spit out graphs showing which parts of the farm need water now, and which can wait.
“Almonds are a thirsty crop, but so is every crop,” Andrew said. “During the drought, almonds were getting a massive part of the blame, but if you look at how much water it takes to grow a pound of tomatoes, corn or rice, versus almonds, it’s not that different. Yet the nutrients from a tree nut are much more substantial than, say, rice, which we also grow.”
Sohnrey almonds are sold online, through their gift shop in Oroville, and through Blue Diamond, other distributors and co-ops. They grow about 20 varieties of the nut, but mainly winters, nonpareil, peerless and wood colony.
The family has always believed in being stewards of the land. Two large solar arrays have been installed on the farm. They also flood their rice fields post-harvest to create a friendly habitat for waterfowl as they migrate from Canada across California and fly south.
With almonds, they’re focused on growing more crop with the same resources.
While each family member manages a part of the operations, Andrew said they do sit down and have family meetings, act as sounding boards for each other, and discuss how to stay ahead of the game.
Growing almonds can be profitable in a good year, but there are pros and cons. Last year, frost hammered a lot of orchards, and this past winter, it rained throughout the whole bloom cycle, so Andrew said it will be a slim crop this season.
“Mother Nature is going to do what she wants. There are a lot more almonds being planted, though, so we seem to have record crops in California, which can impact the price,” he said. “But the almond industry does a very good job of marketing, and creating new products like almond milk.”