Q&A with Rob Mercer
Mercer Wine Estates / Mercer Ranches
Number of employees you oversee: 80
How did you come to this kind of work?
Why did your family settle here?
Looked west for economic opportunity, originally raising sheep.
How has your approach evolved?
From the late 1800s to the late 1960s we raised sheep and then cattle. In 1968 we began irrigating on our farm in the Horse Heaven Hills. The focus shifted to irrigated crops. My father always liked to have diversity in the operation, and he was a believer in vertical integration.
We currently have a highly diversified vegetable farming operation, a wine grape vineyard operation, a winemaking business, and a wine selling business – four legs to a solid table.
Would you share more about your philosophy of stewardship?
My brother Will and I are fourth-generation agriculturalists and the current stewards of Mercer Estates located in the Horse Heaven Hills of Washington.
The first thing I would like to point out about Mercer Estates and the Mercer family is that we take great pride in being agriculturalists. We have been stewards of the same property since 1886.
We have a tremendous sense of responsibility in regard to caring for and enhancing the environmental and social value of the land in our care. We are always striving to provide a “life more abundant” for all.
The wines that we produce at Mercer Estates are a reflection of the sense of stewardship, care and pride in our family’s property. We believe our property and Washington state have a unique and valuable place in the great world of wines and we are constantly striving to demonstrate that terroir with a sense of balance.
We practice “agricultura in stratera,” a Latin phrase meaning“farming with balance.” Every decision we make, every day of the year, with regards to our agricultural practices, incorporates balance.
There is always the possibility of adding too much or giving too little when nurturing a plant to produce its highest quality and most abundant fruit. Balancing the care of the plant today with the care of the ecosystem that it thrives in from year to year always weighs heavily on our minds. As agriculturalists we must at once be considering how any of our management decisions factors in and impacts the long-term health of our crop and our ecosystem.
Why do I refer to our family as agriculturalists?
Because I am trying to provide a better description of what it means to be involved in agriculture and winemaking today. Being an agriculturalist is extremely complex, exciting, beautiful and even scary. As agriculturalists we have made a lot of technical advances in production, yet, we still work in the great outdoors, next to and within all of the trials, tribulations and complexities of an ever-changing climate and ecosystem. No two seasons are ever the same. We face the same challenges and continuously changing complexities of nature and climate that our ancestors have faced for the last millennia.
There is no perfect solution to all of those challenges, there is only balance. As with wine, balance is the goal, creating harmony within the ecosystem of our farm is the highest form of art combined with science that we as agriculturalists can accomplish.
Is the next generation taking a leadership role in the business? Where do you see them taking it?
Currently all three of my children are in college. They all have shown an interest in coming back to the farm and/or winery. They all have different skill sets so it will be fun to see if they come back and contribute to the family operation.
What industry groups are you involved in and why?
Current president and board member of the Columbia Snake River Irrigators Association. I believe it is one of the only organizations in the state that is focused on helping farmers to retain their water and water rights, fulfilling a critical place in ensuring the long-term health of farming in Washington state.
What is one characteristic that you believe every leader should possess?
What is the biggest challenge facing business owners/managers today?
Tort reform. I think this country is going down the road of being run by lawyers and government bureaucrats. Every new rule, new law and or some new edict presents some new opportunity for lawyers to sue business owners and employers. Most small farms are going out of business because they can’t afford a fulltime staff of lawyers and HR professionals. It’s scary and unfortunate.
What advice would you give someone going into a leadership position for the first time?
Work harder but remember that sometimes leadership means getting out of the way.
Who are your role models or mentors?
Gen. George Marshall, Teddy Roosevelt, George Washington and Patrick Henry.
How do you keep your employees motivated?
Provide them with the opportunity to succeed at work.
What do you consider your leadership style to be?
Find good people and let them lead and thrive.
How do you measure success in your workplace?
The knowledge and commitment of our team. I know it’s right when there is harmony within the team, and we are improving our businesses at all levels.
How do you balance work and family life?
I think it is important for the kids to see both. Farming isn’t really about working on a clock; it’s about getting the job done when the crops and job require it. When that isn’t required, it’s time to play.
What do you like to do when you are not at work?
Outdoor exercise, biking, hiking and skiing.
What’s your go-to wine?
Mercer Bros Cabernet Sauvignon.
Where do you take out-of-town guests who want a Mid-Columbia experience?
Well for a meal we like to go to LuLu’s at Columbia Point, for wine we go to our tasting room in Prosser and for an agricultural perspective we like to take them for a ride on our carrot diggers. It is always the biggest hit.
What’s your best time management strategy?
The reminder feature on Outlook Calendar.
Best tip to relieve stress?
Read a meaningful book.
What is your favorite book?
“Soldier, Statesman, Peacemaker: Leadership Lessons from George C. Marshall” by Jack Uldrich.
He was one of the greatest heroes of American history who was completely selfless and a complete professional in every sense. His leadership courage and style ensured our country’s success in World War II.