It is something of a double celebration this year at Fowler, Calif.-based Simonian Fruit Co.
The Simonian family, a fixture in the San Joaquin Valley produce industry for a century, planted its first California roots in 1910, when Paul Simonian began farming a plot of land near Fowler.
Fifty years later, his son, the late Coche Simonian, would launch Simonian Fruit Co.
“We had about 100 acres of grapes and maybe 20 acres of plums,” said Jim Simonian, Coche’s son and the current patriarch of the family-owned grower-shipper-marketer.
Marketing was handled initially by Nash-De Camp, a division of Minneapolis-based Nash Finch Co. The core commodity of Simonian Fruit in those early days was plums, Simonian said. In short order, neighboring growers were asking the fledgling packinghouse to add their fruit to the mix. Some of those relationships endure to this day, 50 years later.
Over the years as some of the company’s grower-associates retired, Simonian Fruit acquired acreage.
“It may not have been the best thing in the world, but we had to keep the packinghouse supplied with fruit,” Simonian said.
Today, Simonian Fruit grows peaches, plums, nectarines, apricots, grapes and pomegranates on some 3,000 acres, he said.
There have been changes, too, in the packing operation. A 200,000-square-foot packing and cold storage facility in Fowler replaced the original shed, which Simonian said has been transformed into a small cold storage facility and a maintenance shop.
Today, fruit carrying the Simco label is on retail shelves throughout North American and a few other continents. Simonian Fruit also is a member of the Summeripe Worldwide alliance of grower-shippers who market pre-conditioned stone fruit.
Coche Simonian did not live to see the success of the company he founded. He died suddenly in his mid-50s, which forced Jim Simonian and his brother, David, to take control of the family business.
“One day we were kids; the next day we were adults,” he said.
As the company moves into its sixth decade, a fourth Simonian generation is active in the business. Jim Simonian Jr. oversees all farming operations and is involved in administration. His cousin, Jeff Simonian, is on the marketing staff.
Success has not been without sacrifice.
“This is not an easy business,” Jim Simonian said. “It’s long hours, your product is very perishable and there are few weekends off during the season.”
Despite those demands, Jim Simonian has shouldered other responsibilities in and out of the produce industry. He’s been a member of the California Grape & Tree Fruit League’s board of directors for two decades. He is the mayor of Fowler.
Serving in public office has at times found the politician and the grower-shipper-marketer pulled in opposite directions.
In his role as mayor, he understands jobs are important to the city’s health, Simonian said. As grower-shipper-marketer, the last few years have been particularly tough, he said.
“Closing down one of these packinghouses is the easy way out,” Simonian said.
“Our motive is to save everyone’s job, including our jobs and our children’s jobs.”
Simonian’s loyalty to his hometown, to his employees and to his growers is a Simonian Fruit Co. trademark. It is a virtue that has paid dividends.
When the daughter of a Fowler trucking company owner came looking for a job, she was hired on the spot. Armed with a decade’s worth of experience at Ballantine Produce, Sanger, Jeannine Martin was to become one of the first women to head a major fresh produce marketing department.
That nearly all of her counterparts at the time of her promotion were men did not cross his mind, Simonian said.
“She’s very bright, she’s a hard worker and she’s very good at what she does,” he said.
From his front-row seat, Simonian has witnessed myriad changes in the fresh produce industry. Not all of them, he said, were positive.
“If I wind the clock back in the tree fruit business to the ’60s and ’70s, integrity was so important,” he said. “Everything was done over the phone, and it was handshakes and relationships. It’s not like that anymore.”
One constant that has not changed at Simonian Fruit is that the company packs everything grown on Simonian family farmland. Yet another constant in Simonian’s personal life is Eileen Simonian, his wife of 42 years.
Jim Simonian is now 66. The company’s headquarters — and his city hall office — are a matter of a few blocks from Fowler High School, from where Simonian graduated in 1961, a year after Simonian Fruit was founded. With the next Simonian generation already active in the business, he has begun thinking of retirement.
“This is a young person’s industry,” he said.
It also has been challenging industry in recent years, especially the stone fruit side of the business. Pomegranates have helped keep the company afloat, Simonian said.
“Since 2000, there has been little profit in the tree fruit business,” he said. “There were a couple of very, very bad years, and I sometimes wondered if this is all worth it.”
He has no doubts, however, about the men and women at the heart of the fresh produce industry.
“I like to think farmers are dignified people,” Simonian said. “I think we’re an elite group providing food for the whole nation.”