Story by Evan Eagan
Photos by Susanna Frohman

It’s been said that farmer veterans are a cross-section of the one percent. With less than one percent of the population serving in the military and a little more than one percent involved in agriculture, farmer veterans are one of the most unique segments of the American population.

For Homegrown By Heroes-certified producers Steve and Stephen Heringer, farming and military service are just part of the family business.

Situated on a fertile swath of land along Sacramento’s River Delta in the town of Clarksburg, California, Steve and his son, Stephen, both proud Army veterans, are the fifth and sixth generation to farm the land. The tradition of military service, however, began with fourth-generation farmer Lester Heringer.

Established in 1868 after their ancestors arrived in California from Holland, the Heringer’s farmland was used to produce tomatoes, alfalfa, pears, peaches, prunes, corn, wheat and sugar beets among other items. Lester began farming the land in 1946 after returning home from World War II where he served as a major in the U.S. Army Air Corps. Much to his surprise, there was a new mission waiting for him upon his return.

With a labor shortage plaguing agriculture as a result of the war, Lester was tasked with overseeing 250 German prisoners of war in a farm labor camp that was set up on 10-acres of land near the Heringer farm.

“They were actually a good bunch of young fellas,” Lester said in a 2013 interview with the Davis Enterprise. “But they weren’t here because they wanted to be.”

Lester, who passed away in November 2015 at the age of 97, continued farming for many years and was joined by his son, Steve, who also returned to the farm after serving his country overseas.

Steve began farming when he was 14-years-old and went on to earn an agricultural business degree from Fresno State University before being drafted into the Army and serving in Vietnam. Upon returning to the farm in 1973 after completing his service and a master’s degree from Fresno State, the Heringer family laid the roots for its present-day operation by planting their first wine grape vineyards.

In 2002, Steve and his brother, Duke, decided to shift the farm’s focus to grape production and wine sales, and Heringer Estates Family Vineyards & Winery was born.

Ten years later, after serving 12 years in the Army and California National Guard and logging more than 1,100 combat hours flying helicopters on two deployments to Iraq, Stephen followed in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps by also returning home to the family farm.

Today, Stephen serves as the vineyard manager for Heringer Estates Family Vineyards & Winery and is responsible for day-to-day operations of the 385-acre vineyard that produces 25 different varietals. Though his father, Steve, has retired, Stephen is still surrounded by family. His brother, Mike, is the winemaker and his sister, Stacy Heringer-McElfish, is the wine club manager.

For veterans considering a career in agriculture, Stephen has the following advice:

“Your skills and training are immensely valuable to a broad range of agricultural producers,” he said. “I would recommend trying to get a paid internship or job with an agricultural producer to ensure that the lifestyle and work is a good fit. Once you have been in the industry for a year or two, you will have learned the basic knowledge needed to venture out on your own and develop the contacts and network in order to be successful.”