A legacy of pears
Sept./Oct. 2009 California Country magazine
Story by Barbara Arciero
Photos by Paolo Vescia and Matt Salvo
Pear orchards planted in the Sacramento River delta have grown into a legacy for generations.
Unlike most fruit trees that lose their vigor in a matter of decades, pear trees actually get better with time and will produce a good crop for 50, 75, even 100 years or more. In many ways, the longevity of a pear tree parallels the rich heritage of the California farm families who grow them. Many of these families settled along the Sacramento River delta during the Gold Rush, planting pears and building a legacy that has continued into a sixth generation. Here, we introduce two of these families.
Stillwater Orchards, David J. Elliot & Son
Three generations of the Elliot family work side by side to continue a 150-year tradition of growing pears in California. They are, clockwise from bottom, Rachel, Bonnie, Ryan, Becky, Richard Sr., Richard Jr. and David J. Jr., or Dave.
Three generations gather on the steps of a blue Victorian home and later in a sun-dappled pear orchard just beyond the back door. The conversations flow like the river that borders the property, and sentences that are begun by one person are completed by another—the words not an interruption, but almost as if they are coming from the same voice.
Those gathered are the descendants of David Osburn, who on the heels of the Gold Rush settled along the Sacramento River delta and soon planted pear trees in its rich, loamy soil. The year was 1860. Today, Osburn's great-nephew, David J. Elliot Jr., and his family still harvest from some of those original plantings and the many others that have followed.
The orchards around Courtland, where all three generations of the Elliots live and work, are known for producing some of the finest pears in the world. What, then, makes an Elliot pear special?
"All the hard work that goes into it," is the immediate response offered by David J. Elliot Jr. Well into his 70s, Dave—or Dad or Pop, depending on who is talking—still oversees the family business while his son, Richard Sr., manages the day-to-day operations.
"All the hard work and care, all of it," Richard says, underscoring his father's reply.
"We care," says Dave.
"We go all year and this is it," Richard adds, gesturing toward trees heavy with fruit. "So finally you get to see what you've been working for all year. And you're hoping. Every year's different. This year we're very pleased. Everything looks great."
"Yeah, we're blessed with a nice crop," his father says.
"Lot of pears."
And so it goes.
Three generations actively running a business together might be a rarity in other parts of the business world, but not here at Stillwater Orchards, as family members ranging from the teens to past the traditional retirement age work side by side.
Bonnie and David J. Elliot Jr.
Bonnie, Dave's wife of 56 years, still does the bookkeeping for the business, today a grower, packer and shipper of pears, and, more recently, apples, kiwifruit and cherries. Daughter Debbie Elliot is a local real estate agent, while daughter Deann Carter, once the company's sales manager, is taking time off to raise four young children. Richard's wife, Becky, does payroll and sales.
Richard and Becky's children round out the sixth generation of active participants. Richard Jr. and Ryan are full-time college students, but spend their summers managing the fields and the shipping, respectively. Rachel, a high school junior, works in payroll. All three siblings are knowledgeable in the workings of the business and genuine in their intent to ensure its success.
"We were never pressured to do this. Our parents always told us we could do whatever we wanted to do," Ryan says. "But I think all of us gravitated back towards it because it's what we've done for six generations."
"It kind of feels like a birthright, to carry on the tradition," Richard Jr. says. "It's nice to be part of something like that."
"We don't feel like it's a burden, more like a privilege," Rachel says.
Their grandfather, equal parts modest and proud, smiles as he expresses optimism for the farming legacy established by his great-uncle.
"We've got a great family," Dave says, "and we should be very successful, with God's help."
For more information, visit www.stillwaterorchards.com.
Greene and Hemly
The Hemly family’s farming tradition began in 1850 and continues today with Doug and Cathy Hemly and their two children.
The story of the Hemly family is a story of change. And it, like the story of so many other families in the Sacramento River delta, begins during the Gold Rush with an enterprising man who chose to stake his claim in farming the land rather than mining it.
Josiah Greene purchased the family's first piece of land, sight unseen, from a discouraged settler in 1850. But it proved a sound investment, as he was able to make a go of it growing vegetables and grain, and running a dairy. The family business continued to evolve over the decades and today, with Josiah's great-great-grandson at the helm, it is firmly established as a grower, packer and shipper of both pears and apples. Pears, however, remain the primary crop.
"When the first people showed up, they planted a little bit of everything and over time it was demonstrated that pears were one of the better choices," Doug Hemly explains.
Standing in an orchard where the steady clank-clank from the packinghouse competes with the laughter of his grandchildren, Doug tells of how, during his lifetime, the ranch where he grew up has gone from only two pear varieties to seven—the original Bartletts remain, while the Buerre Hardys have been abandoned in favor of Starkcrimsons, Comice, Taylors Gold, Golden Russet Bosc, Seckels and Forelles.
"Our goal has been, and remains, to produce what the marketplace wants," Doug says.
Virginia Hemly Chhabra represents her family’s sixth generation of farmers; daughters Saya and Ria represent a possible seventh generation.
He acknowledges, however, that the goal is getting increasingly difficult to reach for California's pear farmers. The fruit is expensive to grow, and the canned product, especially, isn't as popular as it once was. As a result, pear orchards throughout the state are being pulled out and replanted with more profitable crops, such as winegrapes.
"It's not for the faint of heart," is how Doug's daughter, Virginia Hemly Chhabra, laughingly describes the challenges of growing pears in California. Virginia runs the family's packinghouse, while her 33-year-old brother, Matthew, manages the orchards. Their mother, Cathy, is the compliance manager.
Despite the challenges, both siblings agree that being a sixth-generation farmer has its rewards.
"It can be a lot of work, but because it's so emotionally rewarding, that sort of makes up for it," Matthew says, adding, "It's rewarding to work as a family, growing food for people to eat."
When Doug Hemly outlines a plan for the future of the family farming tradition—how to continue growing food, satisfying the marketplace—it begins with one word: change.
Matthew Hemly manages the family’s orchards. He and his wife, Sarah, are expecting their first child.
"We have several initiatives going forward, not forgetting where we came from, but we have to change if we're going to remain viable," he says. "But pears will be part of our future.
"There is nothing more satisfying than to walk through an orchard that you have planted with your family and see it come into production and then, once it's harvested, come over and watch it go through the family packing facility and see the quality that's there, and have it accepted in the marketplace. I'm not sure what other businesses you can go into and have that hands-on sense of satisfaction."
Barbara Arciero is the managing editor for California Country. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Another pear family story