Packing fruit to stay afloat
By packing their own fruit, the Garcias had more control over sales and returns.
Almost 20 years ago, the Garcia family of Yakima, Washington, decided to take their destiny into their own hands and pack their own fruit. And that decision is the reason they're still in the tree fruit industry today, says Rene Garcia, --co-owner of G & G Orchards at Naches Heights, near Yakima.
Rene was an infant when his parents moved to Washington State from Brownsville, Texas, in 1951. His father, Merced, was an orchard worker until he was able to buy his own 30-acre orchard at Naches Heights in 1972. It was while working at the family orchard that Rene met his future wife, Carmen, who is from the state of Colima in Mexico and had come to work as a migrant picker. He spoke no Spanish, and she spoke no English at first.
Two years later, the couple bought their first 20-acre orchard. Any profits they made were invested in buying more orchards.
After a couple of tough years in the apple industry in the late 1980s, the couple began renting CA (controlled atmosphere) storage space and packing facilities so that they could pack and sell their own fruit. They could watch the market and sell when prices were highest, Rene said. "Every year, there's a certain time of year when the market is best. Before, we didn't have any control. When we started running our own packing house, then we could control it."
In 1993, they built their own packing house at Naches Heights. Today, they have 800 acres of orchard and pack 500,000 boxes of fruit annually. The company has about 50 year-round employees, who work in the orchards during the growing season and switch to the packing house after harvest.
Though the packing operation has brought more work and headaches, Rene said without it they would not have survived as orchardists. "I would have been out a long time ago."
Work, work, work
Their daughter Erica, who is project coordinator for the business and is bilingual, said her parents' strategy for success is "work, work, work." During the growing season, they both work 13 to 14 hours a day, seven days a week. After harvest, when the packing --season begins, Carmen runs the packing line, while Rene drives a forklift and loads trucks. Their son Damen runs the computers in the warehouse and controlled-atmosphere storage facility.
When they were young, Erica and Damen were expected to help out in the orchard, doing jobs such as pruning, irrigation, and picking. That's where they spent their summer vacations. Frost season was particularly stressful for the whole family.
"As a kid, I remember worrying about that—if the frost did ruin your crop, not knowing what we were going to do, and how we were going to pay the bills," she said.
Things did not always go smoothly. One of the most difficult times was when the broker who handled their fruit declared bankruptcy and never paid the $200,000 he owed them. "Mom and Dad could have given up that year, because we --didn't have any funds," Erica recalled. "That was our production money."
But Carmen's brothers and sisters, who live in the Yakima area, stepped in to help. They worked in the orchards after finishing work at their own jobs, and they loaned the family money from their savings.
"We got up on our feet and kept going and had a really good year the next year," Erica said. --Eventually, they paid back all the loans.
Erica said her mom is in charge of the business. "She's a very petite lady, but she's so strong, physically and mentally. Everything she's been through has made her the person she is today—very focused and very hopeful. She can get through anything and everything. People tell her, 'You're crazy, you can't do it,' and it gives her more strength and the will to do it."
Rene agrees. "She's the boss. She's got a natural intuition on everything. Anything she says goes."
Rene and Carmen have a continuing passion for buying old or neglected orchards and improving them. "They keep saying they're not going to buy any more farms, but they just bought three more," Erica said. "It's something that makes them feel good, to change it and turn the orchard around. All of the farms they've ever purchased have all needed work."
"It's just satisfying," Rene explained. "It takes a lot of work and money, but we've had some pretty good years to where we can afford to do that."
However, it's important that the operation not get so big that they lose control, he added. "Right now, we're right on the edge."
They are focusing on updating their existing orchards. They think the Naches Heights area, where their acreage is located, is the perfect place for growing good, typy, long-storing Red Delicious apples that are popular in export markets, but they have been planting newer varieties, such as Gala and --Honeycrisp.
Even with production of half a million boxes, the Garcias' packing operation is small compared to other Washington packers. It's also thought to be the only Hispanic-owned fruit packing house in the state, which is the reason former Mexican president Vicente Fox paid a visit while in Washington State last year.
Erica said the hour-long visit involved about three months of preparation to ensure his security.
"Mom and Dad got more and more tired every day. They were exhausted. But when all was said and done, it was just the most amazing experience that we could have had. Not in a million years would I think the Mexican president would come to our warehouse."
Rene said he and his wife were both able to speak briefly to the president, despite the throngs of media and security people. "We were very, very honored."
He is pleased that both his son and daughter have joined the business, but worries about labor problems and being able to comply with ever-increasing regulations. "I'm hoping that they will carry on," he said. "I'm not sure if they will or not."