Stewart & Jasper Orchards: Keeping Traditions Alive in the Agricultural Industry

Romain Stewart and Lee Jasper teamed up in 1948 to take on the poultry industry, but 10 years later the duo recognized the potential of California almonds and decided to give farming a shot. Since that day in the mid-1950s the company the two formed has never looked back. Today Stewart & Jasper Orchards (SJO) grows the finest nuts to come out the San Joaquin Valley. Pioneers in guiding every aspect of production, SJO operates from one location in Newman, Calif., maintaining 2,000 acres of land and working with a network of farmers within a 50-mile radius dedicated to growing, hulling, shelling, processing and marketing almonds, as well as a small selection of stone fruits for preserves, dried fruits and chocolate-covered fruits.
 
From the day Stewart and Jasper teamed up the company has had a very straightforward approach to business. “We believe that our people are our biggest asset and we are dedicated to building true partnerships through honesty and bending over backwards for one another,” asserts Lee’s son Jim Jasper, president and second-generation owner of SJO.
 
SJO handles and processes almonds for roughly 150 farms in the area, and Jasper insists that the company’s relationships remain based on the values, wisdom and hopes that have served the company well since it was founded. All processing for the company’s suppliers is done by handshake deal, because it represents a true partnership based on trust. Jasper estimates that the facility will handle anywhere from $60 million to $70 million of almonds per farmer and all arrangements are possible without drawn out negotiations and formal contracts because SJO has continually proven itself capable of keeping the loyalty, trust and faith of its customers.
 
Balancing Technology and Tradition
SJO not only prepares its own crops for packaging, corporate gift baskets, baking products and more. The company offers trucking, hulling and shelling to agricultural customers, as not every farm is equipped with such high tech-facilities. The company operates top-of-the-line equipment to remove debris from the almonds before hulling and shelling the almonds. The equipment in use is so sophisticated it can even keep track of varieties processed and will organize them according to size and grade for on-site packaging and distribution to different markets. All tree fruit is analyzed according to quality in appearance, sugar content and maturity before being pre-cooled to extend the shelf life. After cooling the fruit is sized, labeled and packed under the SJO brand.
 
Even though SJO uses top-of-the-line technology to process, shell and hull its nuts, some aspects of modernity are consciously avoided. “You will never have to deal with a phone tree when you call us. Maybe it means we’re old fashioned, but that’s ok with me,” laughs Jasper. As Jasper sees it, phone trees set the wrong tone in the industry, and even during harvest season, when the plant runs 24 hours a day, SJO ensures that there will always be a real live human to take phone calls.
 
According to Jasper, the California almond industry accounts for 85 percent of the world supply. According to SJO some 70 percent of it almonds are exported abroad to South Korea and Japan, while the other 30 percent stay in the North American markets. With so much potential market share in a global marketplace SJO’s dedicated employees work hard to take full advantage of opportunities. This doesn’t mean the company is free of challenges, however. For example, In recent years the San Joaquin Valley has seen less rainfall than usual and water supply was additionally restricted when the state ruled to further limit the supply to protect the endangered Delta Smelt.
 
“The logistics of our water supply are especially tough because we only grow perma-crops, so it’s not like we can just not water them one year,” says Jasper. For years now, Jasper has been an integral part of the agricultural community’s legal efforts to increase the area’s access to water, which Jasper sees as critical to the livelihood of thousands.
 
New Beginnings
SJO may not be able to control the rain, but the company has been reinvigorated with the third generation of the Jasper family. Jasper’s son Jason has brought a new level of enthusiasm and business acumen to the company and leads the effort to diversify. The company has always sold its almonds under the Stewart & Jasper brand name and has absolutely no private label business, but recently the company has been pursuing retail locations to promote its new varieties of almonds. What started out as a seasonal pop-up shop in a local mall has since found so much success that the company decided to set up a permanent shop to sell its chocolate-covered, flavored and coated almond varieties.
 
SJO is not prepared to allow any efforts to dilute its efficiency, however. The ultimate goal of Jasper and Jason’s efforts is to set the company up for many generations, not just the next few years. Growing a loyal customer base doesn’t happen overnight, but relationships can be broken in a matter of minutes, so the pressure is on for SJO to keep up its reputation in the industry.
 
“We have a younger generation working here and it’s for them that we want to grow and do good in the industry. We know our limits, however, and we know it would take a lot of infrastructural investment to double our business, and it would probably happen at the expense of our quality,” admits Jasper.
 
Instead of overextending its capabilities, the Jasper family will continue to find new value-added ideas for SJO’s products while maintaining the level of customer service the company takes pride in providing. As the company’s 65th anniversary draws near in 2013, the Jasper family is sure to find ways of expanding Stewart & Jasper Orchard’s presence in both wholesale and retail channels without losing sight of what has made the company successful in the first place.