If there was one thing that Matthew and Virginia Hemly knew in high school during the 1990s, it was that they weren’t going to stick around the orchards where they grew up.
“Been there, done that,” said Virginia, recalling her plans to practice law or do anything but farm like her parents. “We were smarter than that.”
Fast forward a couple of decades, and the sibling duo are back where they started. They run daily operations at Greene & Hemly, their family’s longstanding apple and pear growing and packing company in Courtland, California, and the Sacramento River Delta.
Mathew Hemly, 37, manages orchard operations while his sister, Virginia Hemly Chhabra, 41, manages the packing house. Their parents, Doug and Cathy Hemly, handle strategic decisions, regulatory compliance, and other matters. Doug is 67 and Cathy is 66.
Virginia describes her path back to the ranch as a combination of “circumstances and laziness.” She graduated from college on the East Coast during a recession. No job prospects in sight, she came home. Her parents promptly told her that while she was figuring out her career, they needed someone to work the night shift in the packing shed. The rest is history.
“I’ve been at it long enough that I no longer get the ‘Oh sweetie, where’s your boss?’ comments,” said Virginia, wielding a touch of the signature Hemly sense of humor.
Similarly, Matthew Hemly came home after college and was put to work filling in on pest control while the company was between pest control advisors. The summer job turned full-time when a ranch manager became ill. Matthew’s been farming ever since.
The four Hemlys work together closely. The trick, they say, is to keep the ideas of family and business as separate as they can. How do they do that?
“Very carefully,” Cathy said, laughing.
The family tree comes from hardy rootstock, and the Hemlys have hung on where many growers and packers have sold their land, gone under, or otherwise left the business.
“The ranch has grown, the ranch has shrunk, it’s been divided, it’s been sold off, there’ve been family scandals—all of that,” Doug said. “At the end of the day, I’m a fifth-generation farmer in the same piece of dirt, and Virginia and Matthew are the sixth generation.”
Greene & Hemly had its start in the California Gold Rush, when two brothers trekked west in 1850 to make their fortune.
As family lore tells it, one brother went to the gold fields while the other, Josiah Greene, settled in the Delta and cut tule hay for miners. That fall, the first brother came down from the mountain with nothing to show for his mining, and the second brother had cut a summer’s worth of hay. But a dry north wind blew a grass fire down Merritt Island and burned it all up. And so, at the end of 1850, they were 0 for 2. One brother retreated to the East Coast, while the other stayed and farmed. (The Hemly name entered the picture when Doug’s father married into the family.)
Just as the ranch has grown and shrunk, the family farm has seen good times and bad.
The family weathered a crippling period in the California pear industry in the 1980s, amid a statewide cannery strike—the same year that they chose to launch an apple-packing business. “The learning curve was so steep that we spent 24 hours a day, seven days a week, sleeping in the office,” Doug said. “We learned a lot about how the industry ebbs and flows.”
Sometimes the tough times, in retrospect, weren’t so bad because of all they learned, Cathy said. “The notion of just buckling down and doing it—whatever it is—has stood us in good stead,” she added.
The Delta farming region faces the same challenges familiar to most agricultural areas in the United States—labor shortages and crop protection, for example. Also looming for Greene & Hemly is the state of California’s ambitious plan to build two 40-foot-wide water diversion tunnels underneath the Delta, taking water and sending it south.
The Hemlys are deeply concerned about the plan’s impact on their company and on the local economy—it could result in the taking of some of their property, in severe water reduction, or in the crippling of the local economy. “Depending on where the tunnels go, it’ll affect our day-to-day business pretty severely,” Matthew Hemly said. No one knows yet the extent of the project’s potential impacts, but fears and emotions about the project run high. Many farms and homes have signs posted that say “Save our Delta. Stop the Tunnels.”
“We are in the crosshairs,” Doug said. “What we’ve seen is how the desire to do something is more important than getting it right.”
Greene & Hemly’s acreage mix of 1,100 acres is comprised of about 60 percent pears (Stark Crimson, Bartlett, Golden Russett Bosc, Bosc, Forelle, Seckel and Comice) and 40 percent apples (Gala, Granny Smith, Braeburn, Golden Delicious, Fuji, and Pink Lady). A quarter of the fruit is organically grown.
Their orchards are spread out, with about 80 miles at the farthest point between ranches.
“We take a scattershot approach,” said Matthew. “The chance of a devastating hailstorm is reduced.”
Going forward, the Hemlys will transition their orchard architecture to adapt to new realities of plant protection and labor shortages. That could mean platforms and picking aids in the beginning, but, ultimately, it means an architecture that lends itself to automation, Doug said.
“It’s nothing revolutionary—lots of people are doing it elsewhere in the world, it’s just not being done here,” Doug said.
It’s been many years since siblings Matthew and Virginia thought the “smart” career was anything but farming.
Farming gets you into a different rhythm in life than other occupations, Doug Hemly said. “It’s corny, but there is an elegance to agriculture. It’s a noble thing to do. You are feeding people. You’re working in an environment that is outside of your control. You can’t fight it. You have to harmonize with it.”
Occasionally, there is pure pleasure in farming itself.
“Every once in a while, you’ll be in the orchard, and you walk out of a row with your mind on something else, and you look across to the next variety and go ‘Whoa,’” Doug said. “The satisfaction of that is something that you don’t visit every day, but when it arrives, it’s a very personal moment.”
Kate Moser is a former newspaper journalist who decided to return to and run the family farm in the Sacramento River Delta.