Annette Nordine Doud/The Madera Tribune
Jennifer Markarian now manages the family ranch where she grew up. She still loves teaching, though.
She loved teaching sixth-graders at Washington Colony Middle School. She loved trying to guide them into their upcoming teenage years to become respectful, caring young adults, gentle and kind, to watch them learn, grow and mature.
But it was during the 2012 grape harvest on the Markarian Family Ranch that Jennifer Markarian, the teacher, received a frightening phone call from her mother saying her father, Robert, was very ill, and she was taking him to the doctor.
“The doctor immediately sent him to the hospital,” Jennifer said. “He was diagnosed with West Nile Disease. It meant he wouldn’t be able to manage the harvest. My mother asked me if I would help. I loved my teaching job and the kids, but for me it was ‘family first.’
“I had to learn quickly. It was with the help of this amazing group of people who work for the farm that we made it through that year. Some of our workers have been with us for 40 years. This experience showed me the importance of passing knowledge from one person to another.
“Now I’m teaming an older experienced worker to share his knowledge with a younger worker.”
She explained that there are so many different, technical jobs in a vineyard that are specific to how the water flows in different directions in each row, even though the ground seems level. You need to know the guts of a pump and how to put it together. Then you have to know what kind of bugs, molds and fungus are trying to invade and how to combat them. The list goes on.
“There’s just no way one could learn all of this only by reading,” she said.
Add some 200 acres of almonds to the grape mix and the agricultural challenges multiply.
For example, there’s different complicated mechanical harvesting equipment used for each crop, specific sprays and fertilizers. And don’t forget the hundreds of reports required by government regulations for each crop. Jennifer also helps Gail Markarian, who is responsible for the paperwork and reporting.
“I’m sending our employees to the Farm Bureau for many of their ag training classes. We all have to be updated to stay in compliance with all of the new rules and regulations. I worry about their immigration status. I make sure they have their proper paperwork. I worry about their safety. I feel like a momma bear. I have to protect them.”
Jennifer is ever mindful of her family’s farming heritage dating back to 1919 when her great grandfather, Krikor Arakelian, purchased the property just southwest of what is now Madera’s city limits, which he christened Mission Bell Winery. Planted in 1870 by S.A. Holmes, it was the original pioneer grape vineyard in Madera County. Krikor passed away in 1950.
The property passed to Leslie Markarian, Jennifer’s grandfather. The decision was made to farm the three square miles around the winery encompassing some 1,000 acres. Leslie passed away in 2010. Robert Markarian, Jennifer’s father, who had been helping on the farm since 1965, inherited the land, but had always been a partner.
“We’re an ‘All Ag Family,’” said Jennifer. We’re all hard workers, but neither my brother nor I chose to stay in farming. My brother, Matthew, was named Madera High School Teacher of the Year. I also chose teaching as a career. And then I got ‘the call’ to come manage the farm when we realized how sick Dad was with West Nile Fever. That’s when I had to jump in and do and learn all I could almost instantly. Now my 22-year-old son, Kevin, is managing a portion of all operations and doing an amazing job.
“Times like this is when I realize how the family farm as we envisioned it may not be so, passing from one generation to the next. We are exposed to and tempted by other opportunities and lifestyles available today. Even the children of our workers who have been with us for 40 years choose career paths other than field work. The younger ones who do try seem to soon give up. They say it’s too hard, they aren’t strong enough.”
Meanwhile, Jennifer’s dad has regained his strength and returned to the farming operations, perhaps giving her some time now to plan her upcoming wedding.