The picturesque Craftsman bungalow in Parkdale, Oregon, where Gordy Sato lives, used to be his grandparents’ home. In the early 1900s, his grandfather Todao Sato, who was an apple grower in Nagano Prefecture, Japan, came with his wife, Shin, to the Pacific Northwest looking for a better life and established a 25-acre orchard at Parkdale, a few miles south of Hood River.
Gordy, dressed neatly in a green checked shirt and shorts, and sporting a farmer’s tan, sits at a glass-topped table in the cozy kitchen, colorfully decorated with pear-theme paintings, sculptures, and other objets d’art.
“I love this lifestyle,” says Gordy, once a top salesman for Christian Dior menswear.
Gordy recounts that during World War II, his grandparents and his father, Ray, being of Japanese origin, were sent to internment camps. Neighboring orchardist John Cooper took care of the Sato orchard as his own, and they were able to return to it after the war.
Ray earned a bachelor’s degree in horticulture from Oregon State University and eventually took over the orchard from his parents.
The orchard had started out with apples and pears, but Ray removed the apples and expanded it to 150 acres.
“He had a reputation of being one of the best farmers,” Gordy says. “His pride and joy was the orchard.”
Gordy and his sisters, Peggy and Sally, worked at the orchard while they were growing up, but they were “all into clothes and city life,” as Gordy puts it. Hood River, a former logging town, had yet to become a lively tourist destination.
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in business administration from OSU, Gordy found a job with the local telephone company.
A year later, he fell and broke his arm while mushroom hunting and left the phone company for a temporary job as a sales clerk at the Portland department store Meier & Frank. He was asked to stay on as a management trainee and became manager of the menswear department. When Nordstrom’s opened in downtown Portland, he moved there and was then recruited as a sales representative for John Henry menswear.
“It was amazing,” Gordy recalls, “because sales rep was the ultimate.”
From there, he became the Northwest representative for Christian Dior menswear and flew to New York to meet the national sales team and company president.
“Here I am, a farmer’s son,” he says. “Growing up, we didn’t even get to go to the Oregon coast because we were busy raking brush.”
He had an instinct for style and a talent for sales. In 1981, he was named Christian Dior salesman of the year and went to spend a week with the company in Paris.
In the 1980s, when Dior began eliminating sales representatives because of more centralized buying, Gordy went to work for a family company that made stylish uniforms for hotels and airlines. He represented them for 11 years, but found it stressful because of frequent mistakes in the orders when they were delivered.
The work was demanding. On sales trips to Hawaii, he never saw the pool or the beach.
Time for a change
One morning in 1995, after returning from Hawaii, he got up and decided to go back to the farm. He was in his early 40s and felt it was the perfect time for a change, though he did worry about not being mechanically minded.
He phoned his father with the news. “My dad was so happy. His first question was, ‘Where are you going to live?’”
His grandparents’ house, which was next door to his parents’ home, was vacant, so Ray fixed it up for him. “My dad was running around telling everybody, ‘Gordy’s coming back. He’s a city guy, and he doesn’t know anything about farming.’ ”
Gordy had only worked in the orchard during summer vacations and knew nothing about what happened in the winter or spring. He’d never pruned.
He was determined to learn. He went to the library to read all he could about fruit growing and attended all the horticultural meetings. He worked alongside their employees, doing everything they did. “I wanted to prove myself to the other farmers,” he says. “For the first seven to eight years, no one saw me because I was in the orchard 24-7 with my dad. I wanted to be respected by the other growers and respected by my staff.”
Gordy joined Rotary in an effort to be involved in the community, but he had to be back at 1:30 p.m. sharp because his father was waiting for him in the orchard. There was no sleeping in on weekends.
“My dad was a very strong individual,” Gordy says, “and I’m pretty happy-go-lucky.” His mother, Dorothy, was the mediator.
Being a people person, one of the first things Gordy did when he came back was take Spanish lessons so he could communicate with the workers, though their foreman of 30 years, Romero Gutierrez, speaks good English. He’s traveled with Gutierrez to his home in rural Mexico twice.
He began a tradition of holding an end-of-harvest fiesta for workers, thus confirming what his father had remarked—that he didn’t know much about fruit growing but knew how to throw a good party. His father eventually agreed that the celebration was a good idea.
“It’s really, really important to treat someone like you would want to be treated,” says Gordy, who always has gifts for the workers’ children at the party and plans to raffle off gift certificates this year to make it more fun.
He tries to have a good reputation with workers because he worries about having sufficient labor in the future. He grows green and red d’Anjou, Bartlett, Starkrimson, Comice, Golden Russet Bosc, and Concorde. Gordy said the Concordes, which struggle to find a market and look like a potato when russeted, will be grafted over to Bartlett after this harvest.
He’s been active in the community and volunteers at Brookside Manor, the assisted living and memory care facility where his father was cared for before he died five years ago. His mother, 91, still lives next door. He believes it’s the duty of the eldest son to take care of his parents.
One of his favorite organizations is United Way because it helps fund many different agencies. In 2006, he instigated a fundraising calendar called “The Men of Hood River County,” which featured 12 nude locals, including orchardist Chuck Thomsen, fruit packer Fred Duckwall, and Gordy, who wore nothing but footwear and a picking bag. The project raised $30,000 for United Way.
He’s been active in the industry, too. He’s been a board member and chair of the Hood River Grower and Shippers Association and a board member at the Diamond Fruit Growers cooperative, where he frequently tops the grower pools because of the high quality of his fruit. He is an alternate member of the Fresh Pear Committee and closely follows the activities of the Pear Bureau Northwest, which promotes pears. He’s traveled around the country to take part in pear samplings.
“When the consumer comes up to you and realizes you’re a farmer, they put you on a pedestal,” Gordy says. “We’re really fortunate we have a wonderful product that’s so marketable and good, not only to eat, but to look at.”
Gordy gets up from the kitchen table and walks out the back door into the orchard, which has a spectacular view of Mount Hood. There, on summer nights, 12 to 15 friends come over to enjoy his special pear martini cocktail (vodka, ginger, Limoncello, ginger ale, and a slice of pear) against the mountain backdrop. The cocktail is as delicious as the scenery.
Gordy was excited about hosting a visit this fall of a group of supermarket dieticians from around the country who have never been to an orchard before.
These days, he allows himself time to leave the orchard occasionally to enjoy city life in Portland, where he has a condo, often taking grower friends with him.
But the orchard is where he belongs.
“For me, the lifestyle’s really important,” he says. •
When Oneonta Starr Ranch Growers wanted to feature a grower in its promotional materials, Gordy Sato was the obvious choice.
Sato, a pear grower at Parkdale, Oregon, is a member of the Diamond Fruit Growers cooperative, whose pears Oneonta sells.
“With his background and career, he understands marketing, understands what it is to be a good grower, and understands what needs to be done to bring quality fruit to the marketplace,” said Scott Marboe, Oneonta’s marketing director. “He’s very personable, very smart, and he’s got that infectious smile. Whenever you’re around him, you can’t help but feel happy.”
David Garcia, president of Diamond Fruit, based in Hood River, Oregon, said Sato is often among the cooperative’s top growers with his d’Anjou, red d’Anjou and Bartlett pears. “The quality of the fruit he brings in is consistently among the top.”