MANTECA, CA — The story begins more than a century ago, when Delphino Perry joined his father in America in 1906. He came from the Azores Islands off the coast of Portugal at the tender age of 16.
“His dad was already here and brought him over to join him,” Art Perry said of his grandfather, who became a farmer and started the family down the agricultural path.
D.V. Perry, as he was always known, ended up in San Luis Obispo, CA, working at a small dairy. Dairy farming was prevalent in those days as an introductory job for many of the Portuguese families that had come to California. When he reached young adulthood, D.V. joined other relatives in Oakland for a few years. Several years later, D.V. and a cousin moved their families about 60 miles east to Manteca and started their own business, basically brokering agricultural products.
D.V., along with his wife, Mary, and two-year-old son, George, soon settled on a piece of land that is still in the Perry family, and, in fact, houses the company’s packing facility and will soon be the location of its new headquarters office. George Sr. turned 98 in February, marking his 96th year on basically the same road he first traveled in a horse and buggy.
The cousin eventually went back to Oakland, but D.V. established his own dairy farm in 1925. (Art is quick to point out that in those days a dairy could mean a small amount of land and a handful of livestock.) But from this humble beginning, D.V. laid the foundation for what is today George Perry & Sons, one of the larger watermelon producers in California. And it has been in that lofty position for the better part of a half-century.
George Perry joined his father in the dairy and farming business in the early 1930s, and they established D.V. Perry & Son. George and his wife, Violet, who was always active in the business, had four children, including Art (in 1944) and George Jr. (in 1949). In the 1930s and ‘40s, dairy farming was their main source of income, but the father-and-son team also grew other crops and supplemented their income buying and selling the production of other growers as well.
Through the 1950s, D.V. and George Sr. operated the dairy and continued to increase their holdings, and expanded further into melons and squashes. The company also operated a fruit stand on the front edge of their property on the road outside their operation.
The building that housed that retail operation is now used for storage, but it still sits on the frontage road to Highway 99 as it did 60 years ago when that country road was the main highway running from the Mexican border in Southern California to the Canadian border north of Washington state. Many pictures exist of various family members working the roadside stand, so it was clearly an important part of the endeavor.
Art Perry joined the family operation full time after graduating from Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo, and brother George Jr. joined a few years later as he moved into the work force.
Art recalled that it was in the 1960s that the current company started to take shape. The dairy was sold in 1963 as George Sr. directed all of his efforts to the grower-shipper operation. He expanded the family farming business by buying and selling watermelons and pumpkins from other growers.
“My dad had a knack for selling,” Art said.
He sold product to retailers throughout California, shipped to wholesale markets within the state and eventually shipped watermelons to Hawaii by the container. George Perry & Sons began as a partnership in the 1960s and formally incorporated in 1974, with the father and his two sons as equal shareholders.
Through expansion, production increased and Art acknowledged that at one point the company was the largest shipper and handler of watermelons and pumpkins throughout California. Today, he is much more comfortable saying they are “one of the larger ones.” But by any measure, the firm has remained in the forefront of those two commodities for the past 50 years.
While operating out of the same location with the same basic commodities and the same core people would seem to suggest that status quo has been a driving force, a dynamic and changing company lies below the surface.
The Produce News visited the operation on Feb. 8 and met with CEO Art Perry, his brother and longtime partner, George Jr., George’s son of the same name, and Art’s son, Ron, who will become the 2017 president of the National Watermelon Association at the group’s convention in late February.
Though Art did most of the talking, the others chimed in as well. Those four, plus Art’s daughter, Karen Widmer, and one non-family member, grower Paul Gomes, are the six shareholders of the firm today. But many other family members work in the organization.
Gail Perry, George Jr.’s wife, is the current family member with a knack for sales. She’s been the main salesperson for many years, especially since Art stepped away from that slot. George Jr. and George M. (as he is called) handle the equipment, while Ron is the controller and Gomes is the chief operating officer and in charge of growing operations.
Art called his brother George a genius around equipment, but opined that the newest George is even better. He noted that maintaining, updating and innovating the company’s equipment over the past 50 years has played a major role at keeping them competitive, efficient and at the top of their game. He specifically pointed out innovations, such as the development of a conveyor belt in the field that enables many more workers of all sizes the opportunity to harvest this fruit, which can easily weigh as much as 18 pounds.
Watermelons remain the company’s signature crop, but the watermelons grown in 2017 are far different than those grown 50, 40, 30 — even 20 years ago.
“There are very few seeded watermelons grown anymore,” said Art.
He recalled that it was in the mid-1990s that the seedless watermelon began to dominate. Initially, growers still needed to plant some seeded varieties as pollinators, but that quirk was eventually eliminated by the breeders, and he noted that now there are very few acres of seeded watermelons anywhere in the country, and he said it really offers no advantage.
The advent of the mini-watermelon since the turn of this century is another innovation in the category that has changed cultural practices and given a boost to retail sales. The personal watermelon has become a very popular item.
The firm has also become a year-round shipper of the crop, sourcing from Mexico and the southwestern desert during the six or seven months when California’s San Joaquin Valley is not in production. But Art noted that sales in the summer — especially around the Fourth of July — continue to represent the lion’s share of the business.
“Right now,” Art said, “we are selling about a load a day. During the summer, we sell 30 to 40 loads a day.”
And for his money, he believes there is no better bargain in the produce department than when a consumer can grab a 12- to 14-pound watermelon for $5.99.
“What else can you get for around five bucks these days?” he asked.
While they hang their collective hat on the watermelon, George Perry & Sons is also year-round producer of banana squash and other squashes, and is a significant player in both mini and regular pumpkins during that season.
In fact, on this day, saleswoman Gail Perry interrupted the meeting to pick up two pumpkins off the floor that were being used as doorstops.
“I just sold these,” she said, causing the others to comment on the “super saleswoman” moniker she has earned.
“She’s known throughout the industry by everyone,” her coworkers said.
Art, in his early 70s, and George Jr., in his late 60s, still come into the office every day and offer value to the company, which is a mandatory requirement of every shareholder.
Art said each partner has his or her strengths, but when one wants to walk away from the firm, the company rules require selling their shares back to the organization. This requirement has been an important aspect of the family business structure since incorporating more than 40 years ago. Family members not actively involved in the business cannot be shareholders.
Art said that while the company rules have always been followed, the structure has gotten tighter since Ron joined as a shareholder and became controller.
“We have meetings once a week,” Ron said.
Various aspects of the company are discussed, proposals made and decisions rendered. In this conversation, the four participants agreed that votes aren’t really taken. Issues are discussed and agreements evolve with general consensus reached.
Art said it is the company’s “faith in God and faith in family,” which are their two guiding principles that set the tone each day and are the reasons behind their success.
He noted that the company believes strongly in being involved in both the community and the industry, and that honesty and fairness are key elements of every transaction. He added that it’s also “important to have a reason to be in business every day.”