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March/April 2018 California Bountiful magazine

Almond farmers bring small-batch treats to customers




From left, Mike, Greg, Andrew, Derek and Alex Sohnrey stroll the almond orchards on their Butte County farm. The family, which has been farming since 1875, recently launched a line of specialty flavored almonds and nut butters as a way to connect them more closely with their customers. Photo: © 2018 Paolo Vescia

It's been said that variety is the spice of life. But for the Sohnrey family, variety is the essence of their business.

Seasoned, candy-coated, even made into butters and ice cream­—the almonds grown by the Sohnreys are transformed into an array of foods aimed at pleasing any palate. For some, the savory balsamic herb or chipotle lime nuts make a perfect snack. Others prefer the lemon creme or cinnamon toffee nuts as a sweet dessert. The one flavor that transcends mealtimes: maple bacon. Customers have told the Sohnreys they grab a handful with their morning coffee or find them a perfect addition to a cheese plate.

The family foray into flavored almonds—and a number of other products—started just a few years ago, when Greg Sohnrey, his sons Andrew, Derek and Alex, and his brother Mike decided they wanted to sell their almonds in a way that connected them more closely to their customers.


Customers Daisy Palafox and her 2-year-old daughter, Camila, browse at the Sohnrey Family Foods gift shop near Chico. At right, Derek and Alex Sohnrey display the snack almonds and almond butter available for purchase. Photos: © 2018 Paolo Vescia

Straight from the family kitchen

The family has been farming for five generations, since 1875, and grows almonds, walnuts, prunes and rice in Northern California. Like many California farmers, the Sohnreys sell their crops to food companies to be made into products found on grocery store shelves.

But the thought of selling what they grew themselves and introducing people to their story was enticing—so much so that the idea quickly morphed into a line of Sohnrey Family Foods products. The family also built their own processing facility and shop to make and market the products.

The Sohnreys specialize in snack almonds and almond butters, which feature flavors that are bit out of the box, such as maple and snickerdoodle. A new addition to the lineup, chocolate almond butter, offers a California-grown alternative to a popular Italian chocolate hazelnut spread.

The family grows all of the almonds in their Butte County orchards, then makes the snacks and butters in small batches in the Sohnrey Family Foods kitchen. They sell the products in their gift shop, online and through various Northern California retailers.

Family members say this gives them an opportunity to share their heritage in a different way.

"As farmers, we always have a connection to the food that we grow, but with this, our family name is behind what we sell," Derek Sohnrey said. "It's a way to make a meaningful connection with the people buying what we grow, and sharing our family with theirs."

Derek, Alex and Andrew Sohnrey each handle a varied workload, sometimes spending mornings on a tractor and then hopping into a truck to make deliveries to the stores carrying their products. They regularly switch between irrigating their fields and shipping online orders in an hour's time.

Derek's wife, Amy, and Andrew's wife, Emily, have been engaged in farming since marrying into the family. Now, among other duties, they help create recipes, manage social media and oversee the sale of gift boxes at the farm-based shop.


The Sohnrey family built their gift shop and processing facility in the middle of their rice fields to give visitors an opportunity to learn more about the farming way of life. Photo: © 2018 Paolo Vescia

An open door to the farm

From the inception of Sohnrey Family Foods, bringing people to the family farm was key—which is why the Sohnreys decided to build their gift shop and processing facility in the midst of their rice fields on Highway 99, about 10 miles south of Chico.

Travelers on the highway can stop in for the family's almonds, rice, honey and walnuts, as well as food items made by other area farmers.

In winter, snow geese and waterfowl greet visitors from the flooded habitat of rice fields that flank the shop driveway. In late spring, vibrant green rice sprouts signal the start of growth. By fall, customers stop and wave to the harvesters as they pass through the fields to cut the mature rice.

Like the farm and their product line, the store is a family affair. Greg's wife, Casey, and Mike's wife, Brenda, can regularly be found behind the cash register, chatting with customers. Mike's children are school-aged, but still pitch in during busy seasons, offering samples and restocking shelves.

Having the retail store integrated into the daily cycle of farm life is something Mike's daughter Katelyn said offers a unique opportunity to help people learn about agriculture. Having grown up working on the family farm, the 17-year-old said she values the chance she now has to tell others about her family's way of life. The store's location draws a lot of passers-by.

"They stop in on a road trip or on the way to see family and sometimes have no idea about all the farming that surrounds us," Katelyn said. "They see the rice fields and they see our products, and we get to tell them that what they are buying was grown just minutes away. We get to share about this great community that is working every day to grow almonds, walnuts, prunes and rice and other foods that they eat."


Jayme Westbrook scoops Almond Doodle ice cream for customers at Shubert's ice cream parlor in Chico. The flavor features Sohnrey Family Foods Snickerdoodle Almond Butter. Photo: © 2018 Paolo Vescia

The cherry on top

Part of that "great community" also includes those who have welcomed the Sohnreys into the local business landscape, including a handful of retail stores that sell their products. A key supporter has also been Shubert's Ice Cream and Candy. The 80-year-old institution in downtown Chico shares the common bond with the Sohnreys of being a fifth-generation family business.

Last year, Shubert's launched a new flavor of ice cream that combines its signature vanilla ice cream with Sohnrey Family Foods Snickerdoodle Almond Butter, creating a tempting blend of savory almonds and cinnamon sweetness.

Owner Kasey Pulliam-Reynolds said the flavor fit perfectly into the offerings of Shubert's, which uses local ingredients whenever possible. The Almond Doodle flavor is now a staple at the shop and gives Pulliam-Reynolds the chance to show how farming and ranching families work to provide people with food for their dinner tables—or in their ice cream cones.

"Agriculture and farming is so much a part of our community and there's something so neat about getting to take something from the earth, something from the land that the Sohnrey family has worked so hard to make, and marrying it with our handcrafted ice cream and our own hard work to bring something that people love to eat," she said. "It's just a representation of the values and the work that go into bringing something to people to enjoy, and that's what we—and the farms that surround us—try to do every day."

Toni Scott

Recipe

Go nuts for almondoodles


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