Sunday, February 05, 2006

Punjabi JATT and JAMEEN and USA



Firmly Rooted

Earthy in outlook but jet-set in lifestyle, the Punjabi-origin farmers in the US make their dreams come true by dint of hard work and resilience

By Ramesh Vinayak in California

It is five in the morning. But it is not too early for Charanjit Singh Batth to be in his vineyards, for harvesting is at its peak. The ambience here is Punjabi: hordes of men, some of them turbaned Sikhs, are at grape-plucking machines while some others load dried raisins into several cartons. The only signs of incongruity are the cowboy hats of Mexican workers that make you realise that you are somewhere in the West. Batth's immediate worry is to pluck the crop within three weeks. But as California's single largest raisin grower, Batth has reasons to smile. After four years of depression, the prices of grapes and raisins are ruling high and Batth is reaping a windfall from his 7,000-tonne produce worth $8.5 million (Rs 38 crore). By the time the sun is up, Batth, 60, is driving his $56,000 Hummer around his farms in Caruthers, a small Californian town.

Not too far away, a 40-something Ranjit Singh Tut comes across every inch a dirt farmer of Punjab: a casually tied turban and dust-laced beard. Except, Randy-as his visiting card introduces him-is at his 2,800-acre almond farm at Bakersfield, 100 miles off Los Angeles, supervising the harvesting and processing of 4.5 million pounds of produce. Ranjit's three elder brothers are busy too-while Pritam Singh is harvesting grapes, oranges and apples at a 2,000-acre farm in Fresno, Watson-based Surjit Singh is organising a trip to Las Vegas for an Indian dry-fruits buyer. Amarjit Singh, the eldest, takes care of a 37,000-acre ranch in Belize in Central America.


Unlike many of his generation, Surjit has joined the family business. His father, a prune-grower on 1,800 acres of land, markets the produce directly.
"The only way to grow is to cut costs and sell the product to the end user."

They came to the US in 1966. Now they own 7,000 acres of farmland. Their success stemmed from venturing into crops like pistachios.
"We wanted to stay ahead of the curve. New crops gave us new ideas."

Batth and the Tuts represent a new crop of millionaire Punjabi-American farmers in the land of opportunity. Indeed, these sons of fortune, mostly first generation immigrants, encapsulate incredible success stories nurtured by hard work and, most crucially, deep-rooted passion for farming. Years ago, they emigrated from their native villages in Punjab chasing greener pastures in the US. From humble beginnings, they have sprouted into big-ticket agro-business players.

Nowhere is the stamp of their American dream more visible than in the Greater San Joaquin Valley or Central Valley-a fertile expanse stretching 400 mile long and 100 mile wide from Bakersfield to Checo in the northern tip of California. There are around 3,000 mega farmers of Punjabi origin, mostly concentrated in Fresno, Madera and Yuba City regions. The number of Punjabis in farming enterprise quadrupled since the 1990s and the size of their holdings have multiplied as never before-at least 50 of them own more than 500 acres.

Unlike their counterparts back home, Punjabi-American farmers grow specialised crops of fruits and nuts and are increasingly adding value by processing and exporting them directly to end users not only in the US but also the world over. In the Californian economy, the Punjabi farmers' share in agriculture may still be a flash in the pan. But indicators of their dominance in certain leading crops are all too obvious. Consider this: they grow roughly 50 per cent of total peach production, 20 per cent of raisins and grapes and 5 per cent each of almonds and pistachios in the golden state. "We stand and get counted in value-added crops," says Didar Singh Bains, the biggest peach grower in the US. Based in Yuba City, the oldest and largest concentration of Sikh immigrants, the 66-year-old millionaire grows 50,000 tonnes of peach worth $13 million every year. Bains, known to be the wealthiest American Sikh farmer, owns close to 10,000 acres of land.


In California alone, the four Tut brothers-Surjit, Ranjit, Pritam and Amarjit-own close to 10,000 acres of farmland.
"Our father reminded us that farming is in our genes."

The newfound "dollar power" of farmers like him who once supported the Khalistan movement is more evident than ever before. They are globetrotting agro-entrepreneurs. Rough and rugged in fields, earthy in outlook, but jet-set in lifestyle. Politicians in US and back home court them for funds.

In fact, the Punjabi American's tryst with agriculture has its roots in the first Sikh emigration over a hundred years ago. Way back in the 1920s, the Sikh immigrants owned 2,100 acres and were leasing 86,000 acres of farmland. Attracted by California's Punjab-like weather and farming tradition, the San Joaquin Valley was the natural choice for the Sikh settlers. Until the 1950s, the Sikhs were barred from owning land there. They got around the discriminatory law by marrying Mexican women who were US citizens. By 1946, there were 400 Punjabi families in California and almost 80 per cent of them had interracial marriages. But the practice disappeared after the immigrant Sikhs got the legal right to own land. What, however, has endured is the deep-seated longing for land. The time-old clich´┐Ż in Punjab that "Jat" and "zameen (land)" are inseparable holds truer in California. "Owning land remains a real big deal," says Paul Sihota, the Phagwara-born trucking business magnate in Fresno, who bought 700 acres of land five years ago.

When Sadhu Singh visited the US in the early 1980s, he could not have been prouder with the fortune his four sons-the Tut brothers-had made as drivers-turned-transport tycoons. Yet, the ageing farmer from Paragpur village in Jalandhar would often prod them: "Mitti lavo mitti (buy land)."

"That reminded us that farming is in our genes," says Surjit Singh Tut, who emigrated to the US in 1974. He started off as a farm labourer and then became a truck driver. He rolled his first million after he bought his first truck in 1977. Within the next six years, he was destined to own a 40-truck fleet. It was in 1990 that the Tuts made their initial foray into farming, buying 2,500 acres of land. Now, their net real-estate worth is pegged at $50 million. The Tut brothers, who own two aircraft, contemplate buying a new eight-seater aircraft. Their next plans include launching of a new brand of wine in India by this December and importing tractors and other farm machinery from India for rental.


Batth owns 13,200 acres of farmland in California, making him the biggest Punjabi-American farmer. His raisin produce is worth $8.5 million.
"With prices up, this time around I hope to make some extra bucks."

The Tuts are not the only ones forging a smart synergy between real-estate enterprise and agro-business. "We buy ranches when the opportunity is ripe," says Surjit Singh. "The Jat Sikh immigrants have been big risk takers," adds Sham Goyal, an agricultural scientist at the University of California, Davis. That instinct, coupled with common sense and hands-on involvement, has sown the seeds of success for the first generation immigrants. Take, for instance, the case of Batth. Landing in the US with $250 in his pocket in 1968, he began as a farm hand in a vineyard. Eight years later, he sold off his 120 acres to buy a 480-acre ranch for $2.6 million. At that time, his total assets were less than a quarter million dollars, and his colleagues thought he would go broke sooner than later. "But I went by my instinct and have never looked back," he says, basking in the glory of $120 million estate and his reputation as "king of raisins". No wonder the immigrants' big buy deals often coincide with the real estate depression. "The white farmers easily get frustrated by a market crash, and that is the time affluent Punjabis plough back their money into land deals," says Bains.

The family emigrations from rural Punjab into the US helped transplant the farming culture. But it is not just the "farming-in-our-blood" spirit that is the driving force behind these farmers. Grafting risk-taking with ingenuity has been the key to their success. In this context, nothing is more telling than the extraordinary rags-to-riches tale of the Munger brothers-Baldev, 46, and Kable, 44-who, along with their father Lajpat Rai, left their native village in Hoshiarpur to chase the American dream way back in 1966. With moist eyes they reminisce about their childhood days when they worked alongside their father, plucking strawberries and plums after school hours. Now, as the largest pistachio growers in the US, they rake in around $30 million every year from 15 million pounds of pistachios-5 to 7 per cent of America's total yield.

The bigger challenge for farmers like them is to attract their sons into farming. Not many of them are opting for the rough-and-risky profession. "The new generation has been to the universities and has a bunch of career options." Yet, instances of US-born youngsters pitching in to build on the family legacy are not uncommon either. "Farming comes naturally to us but the challenge is to cross the bar our elders have set," says the 28-year-old Raminder Singh, who graduated in agricultural marketing and now handles the 2,400-acre farm that his father Mohinder Singh Bains, a 1954 immigrant from Jalandhar, owns in Yuba City. Says Surjit Singh, 27: "Since the profit margins are shrinking, the only way to grow is to cut costs and sell the product to the end user." His father Jaswant Singh Bains, a prune-grower on 1,800 acres, has a state-of-the-art processing plant and markets his produce directly.

The mega-rich expatriates have passionately cultivated an image of community do-gooders back home. Batth and Didar Singh Bains were among the key donors in raising $3,50,000 for the under-construction Khalsa Heritage Complex at Anandpur Sahib. The Tuts got a Rs 3.5 crore water-filtering plant installed at the Golden Temple. The Mungers spent Rs 16 crore on building a hospital and an institute of information technology at Baijwara. These sons of fortune remain the sons of the soil at heart.