'We're all about family'
July/Aug. 2011 California Country magazine
Story by Ron Miller and Barbara Arciero
Photos by Paolo Vescia
Business is built on trust and togetherness
It's watermelon season at George Perry and Sons in Manteca. Front row, from left: George Perry Sr. and wife Violet. Second row: Fred Mullen, Carolyn Mullen, Art Perry, Dianne Perry, George Perry Jr., Gail Perry, Linda Perry and Ron Perry. Back row: David Perry, Paul Gomes, Jenny Gomes, Janica Gomes, Josh Gomes, Jacob Gomes, Rob Perry, Melissa Perry, George M. Perry, Karen Widmer, Joey Widmer and Joe Widmer.
When D.V. Perry moved to the San Joaquin Valley some 90 years ago, the teenager was seeking a better life than the one he left behind in the Azores. He managed to establish a small dairy on about 30 acres near Manteca and, to supplement the family larder, raised chickens and pigs and grew an increasingly wide variety of fruits and vegetables.
Patriarch George Perry Sr., second from left, with sons David, Art and George Jr.
The young man then set up a roadside stand, where he sold the produce he grew. Business was brisk and watermelons were an especially big hit with customers. D.V. soon expanded his market, shipping watermelons by small trucks to the railroad, where they were loaded into freight cars and sent to San Francisco for wider distribution.
Joey Widmer has already shown an interest in becoming a fifth-generation family farmer.
Over time, D.V.'s son George joined the family business and, later, George's sons came aboard. In the meantime, the Perrys sold the dairy so they could direct all of their efforts toward growing crops.
The business grew along with the family. Today, 14 members of the extended Perry family work side-by-side to run what has become one of the largest shippers and handlers of watermelons, pumpkins and hard-shell squash in California.
"We're in the fourth generation now and we want to keep going for many, many more generations. That's what we're shooting for here," Art Perry said of the family business, George Perry and Sons.
One of George's four children, Art is a member of the third generation of Perrys to make a living from the land. He is also grandfather to a 3-year-old named Joey, whom he said has already shown an interest in becoming a fifth-generation family farmer.
George Perry Jr. and brother Art are partners in the family business and are also featured with their father on the family's fleet of trucks.
"We're all about family here," Art said. "Family and God mean a whole lot to us, and that's what we've built our business on. That foundation was really started by my grandfather. He didn't set out to have a large operation like this. He just came from the Azores islands to better himself and his family.
"The story is that my grandfather always wore a shirt and tie when he went to town for whatever business he needed to transact," he added.
If you travel through the Central Valley, chances are you've seen pictures of D.V.'s family. Photos of George Sr. and sons Art and George Jr. adorn a fleet of semitrailer trucks that deliver produce to markets year-round. During peak watermelon season—July through September—trucks come and go from the family farm in rapid succession to meet market demand.
The Perrys consider Jacob, Paul and Josh Gomes, from left, part of their extended family.
The Perrys maintain that success in the produce business hinges on long-term relationships.
"We're real proud of what we call our extended family, that network we've developed throughout the years," Art said.
The Perrys have been buying and selling watermelons and other produce from neighboring farmers for 40 years. Many of the family's wholesale and retail customers have also been with the Perrys in the 30- to 40-year range, and several employees have an equally long tenure.
George Sr., now 92, said he was successful in building relationships with retailers and wholesalers because "I could provide top-quality produce from our farm."
"We call him our superstar when it comes to sales," Art added. "He always made a friend wherever he went."
Watermelon harvest takes a coordinated effort.
Although retired, George Sr. and wife Violet remain active in day-to-day operations. Art and George Jr. are partners, and members from virtually all branches of the family tree work in the business.
Ron Perry, Art's son, said he considered becoming an architect while in college.
"I actually worked for an architect for awhile," he said. "But after thinking it over, I decided farming with my family was a better vocation."
Ron now fills financial and marketing roles at George Perry and Sons. Many of his cousins and miscellaneous relatives reached the same conclusion about joining the company and today work in a variety of jobs—from farming to sales to trucking.
Ricky Ruiz, Connie Romero and Art Perry demonstrate a technique to determine ripeness. Tap on the fruit with your fingertips, they say. You should feel a vibration in the melon, and it should have a ring to it.
"What impressed me about the farming business is the trust," Ron said. "Because farmers in the produce business have long-term relationships, many sales are completed with a handshake. Buyer and seller agree on price and place of delivery and the process is completed. I don't think that is the case in many other businesses."
George Perry and Sons' business includes farming as well as product distribution. They farm about 5,000 acres. Along with watermelons, pumpkins and various hard-shell squashes, they grow alfalfa, tomatoes, corn, wheat, safflower, seed crops and beans. By rotating these crops on different fields, Art explained, they are able to sustain and improve the soil. Growing crops that mature at different times of the year also provides year-round employment.
Watermelon is 92 percent water, making it an ideal summertime refresher.
"This is more than just a business to make money," Art said. "We have great people working here and it's important that we keep this thing going for that reason, too. And what about the companies that we sell to? They depend on us for supply. And all the truckers that haul for us and all the people that sell boxes? It's not just about us. It's about everybody that's involved."
Besides, family members derive pleasure from bringing what they call "fun" crops to market.
"My favorite crops are watermelons and pumpkins because they make people happy," Ron said.
Watermelons take about 90 days to grow from planting seed to harvest time. The rind of the fruit is not as tough as it looks, so the crop must be handpicked.
Family members keep a ready supply of bite-sized watermelon pieces in the refrigerator for easy snacking, as shown above by Joey Widmer and mother Karen.
Harvesting takes a coordinated effort. In a colorful, fast-moving choreography, field crews pick melons off the vines and toss them down the line from colleague to colleague. This moves the fruit quickly toward large wagons that are pulled by tractor to the packing facilities. There, the melons are cooled and then trucked to customers throughout the West.
The Perrys have their own labels, which are affixed to the melons so shoppers can know where the melons were grown.
"We've found an efficient method of having watermelon as a snack for both children and adults," Art advised. Remove the watermelon meat from the rind, then cut into cubes, place in a bowl and refrigerate. Another way to form bite-sized pieces is to use a spoon or melon baller.
"Have a supply of toothpicks nearby or be prepared for people to pick up the pieces with their fingers," Art said. "They'll keep a long time in the refrigerator, but storage should not be a problem because the family will eat them fast."
As for Art's young grandson Joey: "He does love watermelon and can be seen eating it in the kitchen or in the field," Art said.
Watching the watermelon juice drip down Joey's chin reminds his grandfather of why he's not ready to retire.
"I want to do everything I can to help my family," Art said. "The goal is for them to help their kids and just keep things going. We're supposed to help each other moving from one generation to the next, aren't we? So that's our goal."
George Sr. said he didn't think the business would grow as much as it has, but said his family is what makes it grow—and what will lead it into future generations.
"What will keep it going is that there is no friction between the relatives," he said. "We all get along and we believe in the principles on which the business was founded."
Ron Miller is a reporter for California Country. Barbara Arciero is the managing editor. They can be reached at 800-698-FARM or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Melons have a lot going for them...
They can be grown just about everywhere in California, but thrive in areas where there is a lot of summertime heat. They also have a long season. Of course it varies a bit depending on the variety, but in general, California farmers can harvest some sort of melon from June well into the fall. Most important: People love them. They love thumping the rinds to check for ripeness and quality; they thrill at the heft of the juicy fruit; they enjoy the theatrics of slicing them open to reveal the colorful treasure inside. Plus, it's fun to explore new flavor blends by pairing sweet melons with savory foods.
Here's a sampling
||Watermelon: These refreshers range in size from 40 pounds (picnic size) to 3 pounds (personal size). Slightly salty foods such as nuts, prosciutto, salami and feta cheese complement its sweet, mellow flavor.
||Sharlyn: A hybrid of a cantaloupe and honeydew with a flavor reminiscent of the two, but not as sweet. Sharlyns pair well with chiles, sheep and goat cheese, and vanilla flavors. Eat within a week of harvest.
||Galia: With a beige rind and aromatic, light green flesh, it looks like a smoother version of cantaloupe. The fragrance is tropical and floral; the flavor, slightly spicy and sweet. Use as soon as ripe in fruit salads and paired with seafood and soft cheeses.
||Cantaloupe: The bright coral-orange flesh of this popular melon boasts a floral fragrance and honey flavor. Pair with sweet and savory foods such as goat cheese, pork and prosciutto.
||Honeydew: As it ripens, the rind of this melon transforms from hard and smooth to a slight velvet texture. The flesh is pale green with sweet and subtle citrus flavors. Delicious with lime, mint and fresh berries.
||Casaba: Originally imported from Kasaba, Turkey, and easily recognized by its slightly pointed top and round bottom. The flesh is light green with a mild, sweet flavor similar to Asian pears. Blends well with curry, cucumber and lime.
||Santa Claus: In South America, these green-speckled melons are harvested during the winter months, hence the name. In California, they have a long season from June through October. Use as you would a cantaloupe.
Before cutting into a melon, give the rind a good scrub with cool, soapy water and rinse well.
A good-eating watermelon, according to members of the Perry family, can be found by tapping the melon with your fingertips. You should feel a vibration in the melon, and it should have a ring to it. Family members call this the "ping ping test." If you tap a melon and it has a dull thud to it, move on to the next.