SEASON ONE
In the inaugural season of Stories from the Rio Grande, two individuals discuss the mid-20th century legacy of the produce industry in South Texas. The first four episodes feature Neil Cassady, who worked as a produce salesman for Griffin & Brand in McAllen, Texas. The final episode features Jimmy Henderson, who worked as a watermelon harvester in the 1980s and later became the owner of Warren Produce in Edinburg, Texas.

There were many packing sheds throughout the four-county region of the Rio Grande Valley. These produce businesses were in charge of harvesting produce across the Valley then packing and delivering it across the country. However, in the 1980s and early 1990s, the packing sheds slowly began to close. Eventually, even to this day, few remained. So, what happened?

Stories from the Rio Grande: The Lost Empires provides a retrospective glimpse on the produce industry’s demise.

Transcript

Host: Pamela Morales

Guest: Neil Cassady

OPENING ID WITH BACKGROUND MUSIC

The Museum of South Texas History preserves and presents the borderland heritage of South Texas and northeastern Mexico by telling the stories from the Rio Grande

TRANSITION

HOST – INTRODUCTION

Hello! I’m Pamela Morales, the communications officer at the Museum of South Texas History. The Museum of South Texas History has a lot of history to present, but sometimes it’s nice to hear it from someone who lived it. That’s why I’m starting this podcast: Stories from the Rio Grande. I’m excited to share the stories of locals who experienced or know the history of our region. The first season is about the Lost Empires, the once powerful produce industry in the Rio Grande Valley. You’ll hear a first-hand perspective from Neil Cassidy, who worked during the peak of the fresh produce industry.

TRANSITION

HOST

Welcome to MOSTHistory: Stories from the Rio Grande, and with me is Neil.

GUEST

Hello, Pamela. Thanks for inviting me to participate in this podcast.

HOST

I’m really excited to share your story! So, let’s get to the basics. How did you get involved in marketing the fresh produce of the Rio Grande Valley?

GUEST

In 1975 I was working for an international produce brokerage company in Toronto, Ontario. During my tenure there, I had enjoyed selling produce to the local trade for shippers in the Rio Grande Valley. I had developed a particularly close relationship with the staff at Griffin and Brand in McAllen. I took pride in representing them and their quality line of produce.

HOST

So, you were in Toronto selling produce to the local trade shippers in the Rio Grande Valley, what were your job duties? What did that entail?

GUEST

It’s kind of funny. It was a time before the internet or, even fax machines, so all communication was verbal over the telephone. From our office at the Ontario Food Terminal at 6:00 a.m., we began to call shippers of fresh produce in the Eastern Time Zone for price quotations on their products. Between the calls to shippers, we called the wholesalers and retail chain buying offices in Toronto and interior Ontario to try to sell them the products for which we had quotations. At 8:00 a.m. we started to collect quotes from shippers in the Central Time Zone, including the Rio Grande Valley. At 9:00 a.m., the phone action heated up. We were calling the Pacific Time Zone shippers and fielding calls from the customers who had their inventories and projected sales for the next week. They were buying produce that would not arrive for several days and seeking to negotiate the best prices. We stayed on the phone all day during this time until 6:00 or 7:00 p.m. I loved the action. Most of the time I had a phone on each ear and one or two lines on hold. It was non-stop stress. In order to do a good job I had to understand the operations of both shippers and the distributors. Intelligence gathering was part of the job. What were next week’s crop conditions? What large ads were chain stores planning? Everything was time sensitive. Markets are volatile. However, my career interests were in becoming a shipping point salesman rather than a destination broker.

HOST

Why is that? What was the change for you?

GUEST

Produce brokers are not tied to either the shipping point production system or the receiving point distribution system. They are true middlemen. They arrange deals between the two groups that actually do something productive. My interests gravitated toward shipping point. My father had been an Arkansas farm boy before he became a soldier, and his father had been a grower and packer of fresh peaches. Maybe that influenced my preference. I had seen large vegetable growing and packing operations on visits to California and Florida. I was intrigued by the entire process of crop planning, farming, harvesting, packing, selling, and shipping. Perhaps because of my military background, I liked the team work. There was, also, an esprit de corps in each company. I admit that I was an adrenalin junkie and liked all of the constant adversities that arise in shipping point production. I mentioned my wishes one day in a conversation with Mike Gower of Griffin and Brand. Mike asked me to send a resume. I was not asking him for a chance at a job, and thought that he was just making a gesture of support. A month or so later, Mike asked me to come to a produce convention to meet the other principals of the company for an interview. I did not believe my luck. It was as unlikely as a new car lot salesman from a small town being asked to interview for the car manufacturer’s national marketing department. And, I was not that impressed with my performance at the interview. I felt that Othal Brand and Jack Griffin weren’t impressed either.

HOST

A lot of us get that impression or feel like we didn’t do such a great job during an interview, especially if we’re being interviewed by someone we admire. What happened after the interview?

GUEST

Some weeks later, Mike Gower called to ask if my wife and I could come to the Valley for a week, at Griffin and Brand’s expense. We did so. Mike and his wife, Barbara, were gracious hosts. I was given a full orientation about the company each morning and each afternoon my wife and I explored the real estate market and family life features of the Valley. She and I agreed that this was a good place. I took the job and our family arrived at Miller International Airport on a TIA aircraft on January 1, 1976.

TRANSITION

HOST

You were living in Canada, and then you and your family basically moved across the North American continent – and into a new culture. How was that change for you and your family?

GUEST

While we were in Toronto, my children were beginning to think of themselves as Canadians and regard my wife and me as “Yankees,” meaning Americans, okay. As parents, we felt the need to raise our children in an American environment that would develop within them an American identity. HOST So did you experience any cultural shock?

GUEST

Yes [laughs], we needed to adjust. Toronto was a city of two million people with an extremely multicultural population. The Valley did not offer the cultural or entertainment opportunities that we were used to having. However, my wife and I were army brats and were accustomed to adapting to new places in the United States and Europe. Also, we were both raised by immigrant German mothers and understood family cultural blending. I had worked as part of Mexican migrant crews in the laundry business, cattle business, and sugar beet harvest in Colorado during my college days. My wife and I had married and lived in a small town in Colorado with a blended culture. The first real cultural shock, however, was when the grinning plastic wrapped cabezas in the grocery store scared my six- year-old daughter. [laughs]

HOST

I think that even scared me! Was there any other type of, not necessarily culture shock, but lifestyle that maybe was completely different?

GUEST

[laughs] The first thing we had to learn was that that football was the unofficial religion of Texas, and we adjusted to the “Friday Night Lights”-type rituals: everybody driving on Friday night would listen on the radio to the games. In those days, Sunday dinner might be at Luby’s or at a restaurant in Reynosa. Crossing the border was not even a formal process. We liked the small town atmosphere and the friendly people. We learned the terminology and the life ways and settled in to live.

HOST

With that, did your job with Griffin and Brand change your perspective in anything particular?

GUEST

After seven years in the brokerage business, I had mastered my trade. Yes, it was fast paced, ever changing, and fun. Making the sale was the hard part. A salesman had to know what others hadn’t figured out yet or say what others hadn’t said. But, after making the sale, the business was, at its core, a simple system. A broker had to make the sale, then arrange for delivery of the product to the customer’s warehouse via rail or truck, ocean freight or air freight. So it went every day: make the sale, arrange the transportation, repeat several times. I had imagined that shipping point sales was a more complex process, but as usual my imagination failed me. In the brokerage business, my mind had become like a pond fisherman who rowed his little boat out 40 feet and cast his line. It knew the fish, the boat, and the weather. At Griffin and Brand, every morning, my mind felt as if someone pushed it into a rubber raft, [laughs] shoved a fishing rod into its hand and said, “Fish and look out for the rapids”. It was all rapids. I got to know and respect people in the industry. Farmers are part wizard and part scientist. Intuition forged by experience tells them when and how to employ the scientific tools at their disposal. Harvest contractors and produce packing line foremen are politicians, keeping their labor constituency happy while still getting the work out of them. Produce warehouse loading foremen were diplomats, negotiating with truckers demanding to be loaded right now, and tired surly forklift drivers. [laughs] Occasionally, a pushy salesman would call and make impossible demands – that would be me. A good loading foreman remained cool under fire. All these people worked hard and tried to do the right thing. Yeah, it was for the money, but also for pride.

TRANSITION

HOST

So, what are you doing now?

GUEST

I am retired now, and am trying to give the public service time to my community that I did not give during my career, honestly. My mission is to reconnect people, especially children, with nature as a Texas Master Naturalist and to reconnect people, again especially children, with history as an active volunteer at the Museum of South Texas History.

HOST

And now, you’re helping with this podcast, which is awesome! Could you give a quick summary of what our listeners should expect for this season?

GUEST

Yeah, I would like to describe the action and excitement of the peak of the fresh produce industry in the Valley and describe its decline as I saw it. HOST I know a lot of families down here they were part of that industry, maybe their parents or grand parents. My mother was a migrant along with her siblings, and I was told by my mother that my tía, my aunt, she used to pick melons in Starr County in the late 1970s, maybe the early 80s. So, my tía would basically show up or go places wherever there was work to do.

GUEST

Yeah, your tía -and those like her- were the bedrock that the fresh produce industry was built. That group of industrious workers, who went where the crops were ready to harvest, they made the rest of the business possible. They worked hard jobs for long hours. To this day, no computerized machine can do those jobs.

HOST

Well thank you, Neil! Any last minute thoughts that you have? Anything else that you’d like our listeners to know about?

GUEST

The fresh produce industry was, for eighty or ninety years a huge factor in the economy of this Valley. It has faded to a fraction of its importance, but I don’t want people to lose awareness of its influence on the growth of our Valley. It was an exciting and vital time.

TRANSITION

OUTRO

HOST

This episode was produced by me, Pamela Morales, and in collaboration with Lisa Adam, the Curator of the Collections at MOSTHistory. Song is Carpe Diem by Kevin McCloud, licensed under Creative Commons. Follow us on Anchor to hear more about The Lost Empires. You can also subscribe to this podcast through the Apple Podcast app or Google Play. This podcast can also be found on the museum’s website: www.mosthistory.org. Thank you for listening to MOSTHistory: Stories from the Rio Grande.

SONG – END

Transcript

Host: Pamela Morales

Guest: Neil Cassady

OPENING ID WITH BACKGROUND MUSIC

The Museum of South Texas History preserves and presents the borderland heritage of South Texas and northeastern Mexico by telling the stories from the Rio Grande.

TRANSITION

HOST – INTRODUCTION

Hello! I’m Pamela Morales, the communications officer at the Museum of South Texas History. Welcome back to Stories from the Rio Grande. If you heard the previous episode, you might know that this podcast is giving people of the Rio Grande Valley an opportunity to share stories that complement the museum’s exhibits. In this first season, Neil Cassady shares his firsthand perspective about working in the fresh produce industry in the Rio Grande Valley. Neil’s perspective is one of many – and I hope, along with the museum staff, that this perspective encourages others to share their stories. Here’s Neil.

TRANSITION

HOST

Hello, Neil. Welcome back!

GUEST

Thank you Pamela, it’s good to see you again!

HOST

In the previous episode, you provided a brief history of your life: Before 1976, you were working in Canada as a shipping distributor then you moved to the Valley to work for Griffin and Brand – is that correct?

GUEST

Yes, Pamela, I was looking to move into point of production sales and Griffin and Brand had an opening ; I was very lucky.

HOST

Before we get started, I’d like to give some context about the fresh produce industry that is highlighted in the River Crossroads exhibit in the museum. That particular exhibit has the packing shed, which is in the middle of the exhibit, and has a sign that reads “Magic Valley Produce Company.” It says of the history that investors came to the Valley in the early 1900s, mostly in thanks to the railroads, and also, the region was heavily marketed as the “Magic Valley.” The land had been cultivated, making it possible to grow almost anything. In the 1920s and 1930s, the agriculture-based economy and towns began to thrive. Even 40 to 50 years later, when you, Neil, were working for Griffin and Brand, the industry was still at its height, economy wise. So, in your opinion, what made the Valley so exciting – most especially, during the 1970s and 1980s?

GUEST

Pamela, fresh produce was a huge deal and the leading employer of labor in this area. The Rio Grande Valley was number three in the nation for winter fresh produce production. California was first, of course, with its Southern San Joaquin Valley and a huge swath of winter productive land from Santa Maria to San Diego on the coast; and then in the desert, from Palm Springs to Calexico, they’re giant! Florida was number two with winter productive land from Miami to Orlando, interrupted only by The Everglades. Inside our little one-hundred-mile-long and fifty-mile-wide rectangle, Valley farmers grew enough fresh produce to keep us at number three.

HOST

Considering the whole country, that’s still a pretty good place to be. Although there are few fresh produce companies in the region, most cities in the Valley such as McAllen, Pharr, Mission and Brownsville are known to have lots of cold storages for produce that comes from Mexico and then sold across the country. I believe those cities have busy international bridges and create, as most people would refer as, “economic engines.” Most would say that this is an effect of NAFTA, the North American Federal Trade Agreement, that was established in 1994. But during your time, where was the hustle and bustle? Where could one see that the fresh produce industry was the “economic engine” for the Valley?

GUEST

Definitely the morning commute on 23rd Street from Dove Avenue to Nolana Loop was the place to see the action. The morning commute easy; but by noon, that stretch had become as frenetic as the midway at a county fair – and almost as loud. By the evening commute, 23rd Street had become a traffic madhouse because three of the largest shippers of fresh produce in the Rio Grande Valley were located on the east side of 23rd Street between Brand Drive and Fox Drive.

HOST

Obviously, Valley traffic isn’t as bad as Austin or Houston, but right now it is kind of a mess: Expressway 83 or Interstate 2 is going through construction and all of that, so there’s some slight back-up traffic. Did any of that traffic on 23rd effect the commuters around the Valley?

GUEST

Yeah, the traffic build-up in a day began like this. In the early morning, only a few 18-wheelers would be driving around going to pick up product that they knew was all ready to load. By late morning, many of the smaller bulk harvesting trucks were arriving at packing sheds delivering product, and some more 18-wheeler trucks would start to arrive to look for their orders which would, hopefully, be ready shortly. By the late afternoon, the 18-wheelers and the harvest trucks were really coming in, and the trucks with product from Mexico, from the border that had just cleared customs would come in too. As you can see, traffic was a mess around these large facilities by late afternoon, and commuters were trying to get home. From Raymondville to Rio Grande City, it repeated itself because there were over 200 produce loading operations.

TRANSITION

HOST

So, what was the packing process? How the packing sheds get everything ready to be shipped? And, where did the produce end up?

GUEST

Well, Pamela, in theory, packing fresh produce is a system that functions like any other factory. Raw product or parts enter at one end of the line, people or machines perform various operations on the product, consumer-ready product goes into trucks for distribution. As usual, reality is way more complicated.

HOST

Reality is way more complicated; could you explain that? How hard is it to work in the produce industry?

GUEST

None of it is easy. In the fields, often, not enough harvest crews would show up for work. Or, the right number of crews would show, but they would all be short a few hands. Either way, you would not have enough people to get the job done. The harvest supervisor would start the people he had and would begin working his contractor connections to get more crews to get the job done. The workers would complain that the product was too spread out in the field; or it was too muddy; or it was too dry and dusty. Most of the time, they were at least partially right [laughs] They would have to walk farther to fill their harvest containers. Or, the field was too muddy, it will slow them down. Even possibly, the field was too dry, the dirt was too hard and it was too dusty. Most of the time they were at least partially right. Harvesting is hard and dirty work.

HOST

Wow. I’m sure the workers spent more than eight hours harvesting. After harvesting, where does the produce go? Does it go to a facility?

GUEST

Yes, the packing facility, most often called “the shed”, even though it’s giant and modern they call it “the shed”. And it had its own emergencies to start the day, for example, two forklifts wouldn’t start. The loading foreman is trying to get two rental fork trucks on the phone, and a repair technician is trying to solve the problem. Orders have to get loaded. On the packing line, for instance, one maintenance crew will be replacing a broken drive chain; and another crew would be replacing a worn conveyor belt that might break during the day. The stress is high. If the machinery wasn’t ready for operation when the packing crew arrived, the crew had to be paid for just standing there. So, the maintenance guys had to get their job done. If the trucks with harvested raw product were held up too long getting unloaded because of the packing line problems, the field harvesting crews would be forced to load the product even later in the day and into the night sometimes. If that happens, the entire packing crew might be held late and be on overtime for the last part of their day. Packing costs will skyrocket, so everybody was under the gun.

HOST

Is there another reason why everything must happen in a timely manner? I’m just assuming that, also, produce isn’t easy to keep fresh.

GUEST

No. Speed is the thing all the way through the process. Speed is necessary because the product is dead. When a product has been harvested by severing it from its root support, it has been effectively killed. As with all dead things, the produce begins to decay. The race is on to get the product hauled to the packing plant. The urgency is like a Code Blue call in a hospital, really. The field harvest truck moves as quickly as possible. The truck is twenty to twenty-five feet long flatbed with slat sides that are six feet high or more. When it arrives, it is driven up onto a sharp-angled ramp that tips the truck, probably to the right mostly. And the bottom four or five slats are actually a door, and you open that and the product runs out of the truck – sometimes a little hand will help – down onto a conveyor, and the belt whisks the product up and into the building.

HOST

What happens in the building?

GUEST

In the building, on both sides of the crowded conveyor belt sharp-eyed and quick-fingered graders snatch the defective pieces out of the narrow, flowing river of produce that’s whipping by them. The defectives are sent down a chute to another conveyor and out to a truck which takes the discards away. The conveyor flow continues to a roll sizer. A roll sizer is a line of rollers (like rolling pin) set at a slight ” Vee” angle. As the produce passes down the channels of the “Vee”, the smaller fruit falls down between the rollers as they narrow, and as they widen, the larger fruit falls out, down into a chute and onto a packing table station. The packer picks up the product and places it into a carton. When a box is filled, it places that onto a conveyor which terminates at the pallet stacking station. They pack a full pallet with a configuration that will allow refrigeration to pass through it. A full pallet is then taken by forklift to the cold room. Once the product has reached the cold room the Code Blue kind of relaxes to “Intensive Care mode”, and the process of decay has been slowed by cooling the inside of each piece of produce.

HOST

So it keeps it fresh. So now that everything is packed and ready to go, what is the next step? What happens after that?

GUEST

You know, Pamela, until this point in the process, the seasoned produce professionals have dealt with tangible, at-hand, and product situations. The sales people must deal with tangible and intangible factors on a national and sometimes even global scale. As an example of a typical day in the fresh produce sales office, maybe the first call of the day into the sales office is from a retail chain buyer in the Northeastern United States. The buyer is canceling four loads of produce which he had booked for shipment today and tomorrow, because a freak snow storm has paralyzed traffic in the entire area, and his sales will be stopped. And then, as a produce salesman, you would express concern and best wishes for the guy’s situation, and form a simple and obvious tactical plan in your mind by the time the conversation is over. All you need now is numbers. Scanning today’s and tomorrow’s orders, the salesman sees that 12,000 packages are on order by customers in the storm-affected area. He must call customers to the South of that storm’s path, it needs to be done this minute, before some other company’s salesman makes that move. Over the next few days eighteen wheelers will come and take all of the produce away. But, the daily cycle of controlled panic continues.

TRANSITION

HOST

Neil, after hearing your daily cycle of “controlled panics,” I think I’ve concluded that it sounds like a movie scene of the New York Stock Exchange. You know, Wall Street guys yelling over the phones or at screens, trying to make deals happen. Now I’m curious, what is the most memorable order, or shipment?

GUEST

Pamela, there were so many loads that went sideways that any produce salesman could write a book about that subject. All strong weather conditions, blizzards, hurricanes, and heavy thunderstorms could affect delivery. Human error could, too. Once, a truck delivered a load of Texas grapefruit destined for Safeway in Richmond, California to Richmond, Virginia. But, there is a pair of loads of onions shipped from Las Cruces, New Mexico to Boston that I will never forget, because of a court case. In the days before cell phones and GPS, independent truckers would, sometimes, run in pairs as a safety precaution. When they came to load, I had a bad feeling about these two truck drivers that were sent to us by a truck broker. Nothing really solid, it was just “spider sense” tingling about them. The drivers’ names were Ivory Lee Wilson and Willy James Bibbs. And yes, I have remembered their names since 1978. [laughs] The loads should have delivered in three days, but there was no sign of them or any word, they just disappeared. On the fourth day, I shipped two replacement loads to the Boston customer at a discount just to keep him from being on the phone screaming all the time. The truck broker filed a report with the FBI, thinking that the loads had been stolen. On the tenth day [laughs], I got a call from Ivory Lee Wilson in North Carolina. Ivory Lee said that he and Willy James had to go there for business and that they would now deliver the loads in two more days. Well Boston was out, so, I told him to deliver the loads to Brand Bros., Othal’s younger brother’s wholesale house in Atlanta. One year later I read in “The Packer”, a produce industry newspaper, that Ivory Lee Wilson and William James Bibbs had been arrested in North Carolina on a charge of slavery. They had held people against their will to use as harvest labor in the vegetable fields. Slavery in our time.

HOST

And in some cases, still happening in certain areas around the country. A very sad thing that’s still happening. But now I’m wondering, during your time at Griffin & Brand, which produce, or citrus, was selling like hotcakes?

GUEST

During this time, grapefruit was a steady mover until 1983, of course. Griffin and Brand owned controlling interest in Alamo Fruit, which was a large, citrus packing firm in Alamo, so I got to watch how those salesmen worked their trade. The grapefruit market never went berserk, but it always moved along at a profitable level because there were four outlets for the fruit. The packers could sell the fruit to the retail trade, or to the gift fruit trade, or the school fund-raising trade – I don’t even know if that exists anymore – or the juice plants, they would take the fruit that wasn’t suitable for the other customers. But in general, demand was increasing for spring sweet yellow onions and winter sweet red onions imported from Mexico. Consumption was falling on the winter crops of the Rio Grande Valley, such as whole head cabbage and bagged whole carrots. But there is almost no such thing as long-term strong sales in the Valley’s fresh produce business. The fresh vegetable and melon markets almost always fluctuate up and down– sometimes wildly. A line chart of any commodity’s seasonal market would look like an EKG of a person with cardiac arrythmia.

HOST

One of my good friends had Valley grapefruit and other citrus shipped to Pennsylvania, because it is sometimes hard to find Texas grapefruit in those areas in the east coast. It seems like the Valley had so much growing – what was the yearly cycle of fresh produce? Were the summer months mostly one produce item?

GUEST

In the Rio Grande Valley the fresh produce season would start harvesting in late October. Leafy greens and herbs led the way. J. S. McManus Produce in Weslaco and Teddy Bertuca Company in McAllen were the heavy hitters in those crops. Grapefruit started in a light way in late October, too. But, November was when the real volume harvest began. Two of the mainstay crops, cabbage and carrots, started then. Griffin and Brand did not do the leafy greens and herbs crops, but supplemented its produce line with imports from Mexico. Since Griffin and Brand had been the largest volume shipper of onions in the nation for a couple of decades, the main Winter import from Mexico was new crop sweet white onions. These onions were best for using raw in Mexican food recipes because they were tenderer and sweeter than the hard, hot storage white onions available in the United States in Winter. Through the Winter, Griffin and Brand and others imported cantaloupes, cherry tomatoes, strawberries, bell peppers and cucumbers and other produce. Look, there were other fresh produce shippers who sold all Winter and never loaded a package of produce grown in the Rio Grande Valley. It was all imported limes and watermelons and mangoes from Mexico, but they created a lot of Valley employment. Well, that was the Winter deal. It was sometimes exciting like a ride at a county fair.

Spring was coming, and Spring selling was like Six Flags. The Valley grown onion and cantaloupe deals were a hair-blowing-straight-back—-heart-in-your-throat screamer of a ride. Starr Produce and Griffin and Brand flooded cantaloupes out of Rio Grande City. Plantation Produce pushed melons out of Mission. Teddy Bertuca Co. and Griffin and Brand added more to the flow in McAllen. Elmore and Stahl poured in from Pharr, as did Rogers Produce from Edinburg and Rio Fresh from San Juan. Lamantia-Cullum-Collier and J. S. McManus gushed melons from Weslaco. All of these streams formed two rivers of cantaloupe loads flowing up Highways 281 and 77. It was an amazing thing to see. But, it was even more fun to sell. I do apologize to melon shippers which I did not mention.

If the cantaloupe deal was like the 2010 Rio Grande River flood – do you remember that? -, the onion deal was like a full on, over-the-levies Mississippi River flood. Starr Produce was in this and there were packing houses all over the Valley, all the way down to Charles Wetegrove Co. in Raymondville. I remember one year when at the peak of the deal Griffin and Brand packed 80,000 bags of onions a day for a week or 10 days. That is 4 million pounds of onions per day that would fill 100 or more 18-wheeler trailers. That was just from Griffin and Brand. Admittedly they were the largest in the country, but there were many others pushing large numbers of onion bags down the road, too. Fresh produce salesmen have my respect. They work in multi-tasking and stress conditions that most people cannot or will not tolerate. But, among this band of brothers and sisters there are we few, we deranged few, who feel electrified and most alive in the peak stressful situations. The Spring season was a time that got my blood up. It also pushed up my blood pressure and resting heart rate. [laughs] Once during the Spring season, Blood Services called me asking me to donate my rare type blood for a child accident victim.

I left the office immediately. Upon arrival, the blood tech followed their procedure by taking my blood pressure and heart rate. And then he left and stood talking to another employee for ten minutes or so, then returned and took my blood pressure and heart rate again. He asked me if I had run down to their office. Now, I was getting impatient and I said, “No, what makes you ask that”. He explained that my blood pressure and resting heart rate were way too high for them to take blood. I simply said, “It’s onion season”, and walked out. I know he didn’t understand, but my vitals would remain high until the end of the season.

HOST

The produce industry really was such a huge economic boost to the region. I think you hardly see that now with the retail as basically the number one thing to boost the region’s economy.

GUEST

Yeah, it’s true, Pamela. Today most people can’t imagine the scale of the industry. It isn’t generally known that the Valley’s sudden population explosion in the early 1900’s was because of two revolutions. The first revolution was the Rio Grande Valley irrigation revolution. It made unfarmable land into a fertile agricultural oasis. In 1910 the population of Hidalgo County was about 13,000, that is not enough hands to operate any moderate sized fresh produce industry. The new farmers here must have been nervous about how to get enough labor. Then the violence of the Mexican Revolution drove tens of thousands of Mexicans North into Texas. Now, the farmers had the necessary labor to begin an industry and the refugees had jobs. By 1920, ten years later, the county’s population was about 38,000 and by 1930 there were 77,000. The population tripled in one ten-year period then doubled that number in another ten. The fresh produce business and its support industries were expanding and the hands were coming to make it happen. The industry was a major employer here until its contraction in the early 1990’s.

HOST

Definitely, but before diving into the decline of the fresh produce industry, we still have a few more episodes. Could you summarize the next episode for us?

GUEST

Yes, I will describe the loss of empires as I saw it. The freeze of 1983 was a punch from which the citrus segment of the industry would never recover. The fall of the giant fresh produce companies was a slower and more complex collapse.

TRANSITION

OUTRO

HOST

This podcast was produced by me, Pamela Morales, and in collaboration with Lisa Adam, the curator of collections. Song is “Carpe Diem” by Kevin MacLeod. Licensed under Creative Commons. Follow us on Anchor to hear more about The Lost Empires and send your questions through the Anchor app. You can also subscribe to this podcast through the Apple Podcasts app or wherever you listen to your podcasts. Thank you for listening to MOSTHistory: Stories from the Rio Grande.

Transcript

Host: Pamela Morales

Guest: Neil Cassady

OPENING ID WITH BACKGROUND MUSIC

The Museum of South Texas History preserves and presents the borderland heritage of South Texas and northeastern Mexico by telling the stories from the Rio Grande.

TRANSITION

HOST – INTRODUCTION

Hello! I’m Pamela Morales, the communications officer at the Museum of South Texas History. Welcome to Stories from the Rio Grande: The Lost Empires. We’re three episodes in, and, Neil has provided great stories about working in the fresh produce industry. Neil worked in the sales department – an important department that sold produce from the Valley and other regions in Mexico to cities across the country. In this episode, he will provide some interesting stories and information about the specific packing sheds in the Rio Grande Valley.

TRANSITION

HOST

Hello, Neil. You mentioned in the previous episode a few packing sheds by name. What were the other packing sheds in the Rio Grande Valley? Where were those located?

GUEST

Pamela there were packing sheds all over the Valley. Chas. Wetegrove was in Raymondville in Willacy County, Valley Central Sales was in Santa Rosa in Cameron County, Starr Produce was in Rio Grande City in Starr County. Most of the packing sheds were in Hidalgo County.

HOST

And what were the most famous packing shed in Hidalgo County?

GUEST

Fame in the produce business usually comes with package volume. Large numbers of packages sold to many places spread your reputation. So, the largest sheds were the most famous. On the citrus side, Texas Citrus Exchange was the famous name in citrus marketing. But they were a marketing cooperative with many packing shed members. Among the vegetable and melon shippers, Griffin and Brand was most famous because of sheer volume and international reach. But other famous ones, in no particular order, were J. S. McManus Co., Lamantia-Cullum-Collier, Teddy Bertuca Co., Plantation Produce, and Valley Onion Inc.

HOST

What were the specialties of these particular packing sheds?

GUEST

All of these shippers had their own product mixes that fit their knowledge base and their facilities. The citrus houses pretty much kept to citrus fruits. The holding temperature for grapefruit, for instance, is 50 to 60 degrees F. Whereas the holding temperature for most valley winter vegetables is 36 degrees F. Holding and shipping both types of produce from the same holding room is not feasible. J. S. McManus and Teddy Bertuca were large volume shippers of leafy greens and herbs. There were some smaller competitors, but the other major players mostly stayed out of that business. Most of the giants played the onion game except Bertuca. Most of the giants worked the cantaloupe deal, but not Valley Onion. Each company had its own program.

HOST

You’ve mentioned onions in the last episode and how crucial they were in the fresh produce industry. And, now you’ve mentioned them again. It seems like this, the onion, is a staple for a lot of meals or dishes. How did the packing sheds get the onions?

GUEST

Here I must say that Griffin and Brand was a different type of business than the rest. There was a scale of volume and international scope that other companies did not have. Their Trophy onion label was shipped year round from Mexico, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado and Idaho in huge volumes. Trophy label cantaloupes were shipped eight months of the year from Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, Dominica, and Texas. They even had an office in London, England.

HOST

London, England?! That kind of makes sense since you were working in Toronto, so obviously there would be an office in London. How did all these companies keep track of everything including sales?

GUEST

[laughs] Griffin and Brand’s sales office had to keep track of its sales, to the minute. There were no desktop computers. I know that it sounds strange, but the sales team kept track of its daily sales on a wall-sized chalk board at the end of the room. It was gridded, by hand, like a giant green Excel spreadsheet. In the top cell, the name and size of the product were written, the next cell down would contain the number of cartons on inventory. The third cell would contain the number of cartons expected to be packed this day. Below that the column was open, with no cells. A total of cartons on preorder was written just below the third cell. At the bottom of the column was the total number of cartons left to be sold. When a salesman took an order over the phone, he wrote it down on a preprinted order form. He then walked to the chalk board and hand-wrote his order in the pertinent column and changed the “left to sell” number at the bottom to reflect his sale. Then he walked the order into the shipping department and they took it from there. The more you sold, the more cardio benefit you got from walking.

TRANSITION

HOST

Were there any cooperatives among the packing sheds, or was it all competition?

GUEST

There were fresh produce cooperatives in the Valley, but they were mostly citrus packing and selling cooperatives. Citrus is a slower paced segment of the produce business and lends itself more to cooperatives than the vegetable and melon deals. Texas Citrus Exchange was the largest. But, I think Edinburg Citrus Association is the oldest. It was founded in the 1930s and continues today. The closest thing to being a cooperative in the vegetable and melon deals was selling for other growers. The majors grew most of their own produce, but not all of it. Most of them also harvested, packed and sold produce grown by other local farmers. Farmers who did not want to invest in tens of millions of dollars in facilities and cooling equipment but wanted to take a shot at the fresh produce market would arrange to grow produce for the majors. The farmer would do what he did best—which is grow the produce, and then the major shipping company would harvest, pack, and sell the product and return the net proceeds to the grower.

HOST

Although now we have major grocery stores like H-E-B and Whole Foods, which by the way both are Texan, there are maybe four or five farmer’s markets in the Rio Grande Valley. I like going to those farmer’s markets and seeing what people grow and sell. How does that compare to those cooperatives?

GUEST

Pamela, there is great difference between cooperatives and farmers’ markets. Cooperatives are groups of growers pooling their financial resources and package volume to create a more efficient marketing position. Sometimes the growers have their own packing facilities and just form a marketing coop. Sometimes the growers pool their financial resources and establish packing and cooling facilities, as well as marketing. Farmers’ markets are places where small land holders can rent a place to sell a small amount of some product they have grown. Farmers’ markets started as soon as people urbanized 5,000 years ago. Farmers’ markets, also called street markets, are still where people in the Third World shop for food and other things. American consumers seem to feel as if they are more connected to the source of their food when they shop at Farmers’ markets.

HOST

From your perspective, are farmers’ markets vital to the economy? Would you be involved in that business?

GUEST

Farmers’ markets are not vital to any economy in the developed world. The United States, Canada, Western Europe, Japan, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand fresh produce industries have massive, modern, mechanically refrigerated distribution systems to provide their customers with a huge volume and wide variety of quality items. Farmers’ markets in developed countries are set up to allow the enterprising small to tiny volume producer to sell his product directly to the consumer without having to invest in any of the terribly expensive infrastructure. It is, by its very nature, self-limiting to an infinitesimal percentage of total fresh produce sales. Farmers’ markets benefit farmers in that they can spend money to grow a crop, but spend very little on harvesting, handling and marketing of the crop. Farmers’ market operators employ very few people and spend next to nothing for facilities to correctly handle produce. It is a system designed to do a small volume of produce on the cheap. But, they serve a good purpose. When consumers visit a farmers’ market, it reminds them that produce does not just pop up on store shelves. It reminds them that food comes from the earth and that there are people out there doing the job. It makes them more cognizant of the source of their food.

Would I consider working in the farmer’s market segment of the industry? Sure, if I could make a buck. [laughs]

HOST

Did it ever cross your mind to work in farmers’ markets when you were stressed?

GUEST

Oh, no, never. I was an adrenalin junkie. To paraphrase an old song, “I loved the fight-life. I loved to boogie”. I loved the chaos and the constant emergencies requiring instant solutions. I would have been bored to death waiting for a consumer to come to my stall. In the commercial fresh produce business, no one waited for people to call. You got on the phone and hustled them every day all day. When a commercial produce person sells a truck load of produce, he has sold more produce in a few minutes than most farmers’ market sales persons sell in weeks. The commercial salesman has to do that many times a day.

As I’ve mentioned in a previous episode, my tía went where there was work to be done. She did some picking jobs in Starr County and in Alamo but she also went to Michigan, east Texas, places like those up north. Did sales people ever to leave the Valley with migrants? Would you have been able to find a job up north?

In fact, for most of the history of the produce business, the salesmen migrated with the crops like the harvest and packing labor. The sales office would be set up in a motel room or some rented cubbyhole in a building in the town where the harvest was beginning. Both laborers and salesmen would follow the seasonal harvest cycle from South to North and back again. In the 1970s, at the end of the Rio Grande Valley harvest season, Griffin and Brand’s salesmen would migrate North. They would split up and go to Las Cruces, New Mexico, Hereford, Texas, Plainview, Texas, and Bovina, Texas and Rocky Ford, Colorado. In the Fall, when the Valley harvest started again the team would reassemble in McAllen. Some produce salesmen worked as independent marketing agents. They would sell for firms here in the Valley in the winter, then in Summer, they would go to the Panhandle or even to Michigan and sell for growers there. During the 1980s, I stayed in McAllen through the summer as part of a team that marketed product being packed in Presidio, Pecos, and Plainview, Texas. We also sold Asparagus imported from Mexico and loaded here in McAllen.

TRANSITION

HOST

So it sounds like there were a lot of jobs for sales in the fresh produce industry. How many people worked at the sales office at Griffin and Brand when you worked there?

GUEST

Fully staffed for the Spring onion and melon deal, Griffin and Brand had between seven and ten salesmen. It varied over the years. The salesman who sold the gift and fund-raising fruit for the Alamo Fruit Co. subsidiary did not stay in the office, since he had nothing to do with the other commodities.

HOST

Did you ever feel like you co-workers were your “frenemies”? Did everyone get along?

GUEST

Actually, the Griffin and Brand sales office was a team work oriented group. There were disagreements, of course, but they were short-lived and quickly resolved. Most disagreements arose when production fell short and customers’ orders needed to be cut short or delayed until tomorrow. The decision to cut which orders or delay which orders is a complex one. Major buyers who bought regularly were the last to be cut because their accounts were most valuable to the company. Customers who bought regularly but in smaller quantity were the next priority. On the bottom tier of order priority were the buyers who only occasionally bought small quantities of product. If the choice of which order to cut came down to two customers in the second tier of priority, a disagreement might occur about which one to cut. Usually, things would be settled quickly because you had no time for interoffice squabbles.

HOST

Were you friendly with other competitors? Did you have any close friends at other fresh produce companies?

GUEST

At the end of the day, we all worked in the belly of the same beast. We all understood each other’s work lives and got along quite well while out enjoying a drink or at a Texas Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association event. But at the start of business the next day, it was dog eat dog again. As far as friendship goes, my best friend worked for a competitor. But I think friendships are based on interests and compatibility. I don’t think that work plays maybe just a small role in actual friendship.

HOST

And, as most things in the life, all good things come to end – sometimes in bittersweet ways. When did you leave the business?

GUEST

In 2009, my wife lost the battle to evil cancer. Even before my wife died, I had started a health battle of my own. The company that I had been part of lost its own battle with the forces of change and closed. My health battle would last for 5 more years. At the end of all that, I didn’t have to requisite capacity or stamina for the daily fight of the produce business. I mean, just not. So, I retired.

HOST

In the next episode we will dive into the decline of the fresh produce industry. Could you summarize what listeners should expect?

GUEST

I will say how I saw the sharp one-blow knockout of the citrus industry. I will also describe the slower more complex fall of the giant vegetable and melon shippers.

And that was episode three of The Lost Empires. We have one more episode with Neil, which will be published sometime next month. Hopefully, you’ll tune in.

TRANSITION

OUTRO

HOST

This podcast was produced by me, Pamela Morales, and in collaboration with Lisa Adam, the curator of collections. Song is “Carpe Diem” by Kevin MacLeod. Licensed under Creative Commons. Follow us on Anchor to hear more about The Lost Empires and send your questions through the Anchor app. You can also subscribe to this podcast through the Apple Podcasts app or wherever you listen to your podcasts. Thank you for listening to MOSTHistory: Stories from the Rio Grande.

Transcript

Host: Pamela Morales

Guest: Neil Cassady

OPENING ID WITH BACKGROUND MUSIC

The Museum of South Texas History preserves and presents the borderland heritage of South Texas and North Eastern Mexico by telling the stories from the Rio Grande.

TRANSITION

HOST – INTRODUCTION

Hello, I’m Pamela Morales the Communications officer at the Museum of South Texas History. Welcome to Stories from the Rio Grande; The Lost Empires this episode ends our journey with Neil Cassidy, who has provided a few stories about working in the fresh produce industry. He started in Toronto then moved to the Valley to work for Griffin and Brand- a former giant fresh produce company. In this episode, Neil will explain how the fresh produce industry in the Valley collapsed.

MUSIC PLAYS

HOST: Hi Neil, we’ve discussed in the past three episodes about working for the fresh produce industry in the Rio Grande Valley. How long did you work for Griffin and Brand?

NEIL: Pamela, I worked for Griffin and Brand for a little over 12 years during most of that time, it was the leading produce company in the Valley. The staff were well paid and had excellent benefits, but the cracks started showing in the foundation in 1987 when management downgraded employee benefits and slowed the pay to vendors like carton companies. It got even tighter in 1998 by 1989, it was obvious that the ship was taking in water badly. Like most good Rats, when seeing the water rise inside the ship, I jumped off the Valley Fresh Produce ship in 1989.

HOST: Did you tell anyone, a co-worker or supervisor about those feelings? That something bad was about to happen?

NEIL: Well, there was the normal grumbling among the employees about the changes for the worse. I asked one of the principals if things were going to stabilize and his answer was not reassuring. I had seen many venerable giant companies fall during my career and I decided that I better look out for myself.

HOST: Which giant companies had closed its doors? Were those in the Valley?

NEIL: No, no. None of those had been in the Valley. I first saw the demise of giants from my position in Toronto. Dominion Stores, once the largest retail grocery chain in Ontario, shriveled because of failure to adapt to industry changes. It was later carved up and sold piece meal to competitors. Two of the largest and oldest produce wholesale houses in Montreal Quebec went bankrupt. In the late 1960s, the Purex corporation of bleach fame and United brands, now Chiquita Brands, had entered the fresh produce business in California in a big way. Both ceased operations in just a few years.

HOST: Did you see anything that could have been done differently to keep Griffin and Brand open?

NEIL: Pamela, Othal Brand was a brilliant man who showed flashes of genius. If a man of his intellectual capacity and experience could not figure out a way to stop the company’s demise, I don’t think there was a way to stop it.

HOST: Did other packing sheds start closing at the same time as Griffin and Brand?

NEIL: As I remember it, closing started in 1987 or 1988. Over a period of 7 or 8 years, the major packing sheds disappeared. To me it was like watching the stars in the constellations go out. Some stars just went dark in an instant and some dwindled in size and glory to red dwarfs and then faded out.

HOST: Do you remember which packing shed closed first?

NEIL: I really don’t remember which giant fell first. I just remember wondering: who’s next?

HOST: How did the closures before 1989 affect Valley life?

NEIL: The first effect was the unemployment of the workers of the failing majors. But the ripple effect of lost business affected carton companies, seed companies, agricultural chemical companies and all the other direct support industries. There was a higher unemployment rate in the Valley until the benefits of NAFTA began in 1996 or ’97. All the old fresh produce empires were gone and pretty much forgotten in the busy rush of trade brought by NAFTA. The company’s that were adaptive and clever survived and even thrived in the new reality. But the fresh produce industry was no longer of the economic importance that it was before.

HOST: So then what did you end up doing after Griffin and Brand?

NEIL: I brokered in Ohio for a few years, then went to Southern California for nine years. I returned to the Valley in 2001.

HOST: What type of work did you do in California?

NEIL: I was the sales manager for a small company whose major focus was Iceberg Lettuce but had a range of other commodities.

HOST: What was the work pace in California? In the first couple of episodes, you mentioned that California was one of the top fresh produce growers in the country. I’m wondering if you saw any differences between California and Texas?

NEIL: Oh yeah. Everything is bigger in California. In 2017 California sold 2.4 Billion Dollars’ worth of fresh lettuce. There is a massive amount of fresh product sold by large number of companies. The pace is much faster. The margin for error is much more narrow. Stress levels are extremely high. Every produce person in every job in the nation’s fresh produce industry works under hectic conditions. But in California it’s even a little more intense.

MUSIC PLAYS

HOST: Why did you decide to return to the Valley?

NEIL: An old friend called out of the blue and asked if I would work for him. It was a chance to slow my pace a bit without getting bored and spend more time with my wife.

HOST: Where did you end up working in the Valley?

NEIL: I worked for Party Produce a small leafy greens and herbs company in Edinburg from 2001 to 2011, when it closed.

HOST: How was it working for Party Produce? Was there much adrenaline?

NEIL: No, not as much. The volume of product was smaller, but emergencies and disasters are a part of everyday. It was a slight dialing back of excitement.

HOST: Why did Party Produce close in 2011?

NEIL: it was a failure to change as rapidly as the industry did. Perhaps the company should have started packing some of our herbs in smaller more consumer convenient packages. Perhaps we should have sourced more products from Mexico. Who knows what could have happened?

HOST: When you returned to the Valley and started working for Party Produce in 2001, how was the state of the fresh produce industry?

NEIL: The major extinction event was over. The survivors and the recent startup companies were thriving. The industry had settled down as much as it ever settles down.

HOST: Were all the big companies gone by then? Were there even any left?

NEIL: Yes, all the megafauna were gone. Only the lighter more adaptable animals were left.

HOST: You mentioned some startups, are any of those still in operation today?

NEIL: Off hand, I can say that J&D Produce and Frontera Produce are two that are thriving.

HOST: What should the local fresh produce companies have done to save themselves?

NEIL: I don’t think that there was anything that the behemoths could have done to save themselves. No one can stop producers in other areas from intruding into a market niche. No one can stop changes in consumer preferences. If there was anything that could have been done, the debt load carried by those giants would probably have precluded sufficient capital expenditures to meet the needs.

MUSIC PLAYS

HOST: What kind of major changes did you see, from the closings of the late 1980’s compared to when you returned in the early 2000s?

NEIL: I wasn’t here, but my friends told me that some banks were in trouble because of uncollectable loans to one or more of the big giants. Strip malls sat incomplete with further construction halted. They said housing developments were on hold. There was a general economic malaise. But in 1996 and ’97 my friends were telling me of a population influx and huge numbers of building startups, it was obvious that NAFTA was going to rejuvenate the Valley’s economy.

HOST: Did you see any differences of NAFTA’s influence to the Valley’s economy when you returned in 2001?

NEIL: Yeah, it was exciting to see the changes. The first thing that I noticed was construction. New strip malls, hospitals, schools and housing developments were in progress everywhere. There were new restaurants of all kinds in operation. Trade transfer warehouses were going up. Every town from La Joya to Brownsville had grown. It looked like a boom town from the gold rush days.

HOST: When Party Produce closed, is that when you decided to leave the fresh produce industry?

NEIL: When management closed the doors of the business in the summer of 2011, it was a hard time for me. According to the expected path of my disease, I had one or two years of deteriorating life left. I would never again feel the pulse of the business or feel the rush of the stress.

HOST: Are you in contact with anyone from the fresh produce industry?

NEIL: Yes, I still talk to a couple of old cronies and a few former employees, but we talk about personal lives mostly.

HOST: From your experience, do you think the fresh produce industry will ever be as big as it was once?

NEIL: In dollar volume maybe, but never in employment levels. Valley grown fresh produce will never see a resurgence. There isn’t a market niche like there was before for our local product. However, since the completion of Federal Highway 40 in Mexico, much of the produce shipped from the western coast of Mexico has started crossing the bridges into the United States in McAllen, Pharr and other cities. About 40% of the winter fresh vegetables consumed in the United States comes from Mexico. That is a huge number of packages. There will be more warehouses arise here to unload those packages from Mexico over the road trucks onto U.S. over the road trucks. So, there will be a time of rapid growth for that type of operation.

HOST: Is there anything in particular that you miss about the industry?

NEIL: I miss a lot of things; I miss the action mostly. I miss the making of important decisions on the fly. I miss being part of a massive chaotic system that feeds the nation. I don’t miss working with a team of knowledgeable well-meaning people, because I still do that at this museum and nature centers, especially Edinburg City wetlands. I do miss being part of the produce confraternity who fight the fight every day in a demanding and dynamic industry. I miss all of it, however, at this point in my life I’m like the old dog who hears the hunters horn and feels his pulse quicken and his nose sniffing for the scent of the quarry, but then settles back down, because he knows he’s better off on the porch.

HOST: What is one maybe two things that you want people to know about the fresh produce industry?

NEIL: Rightfully, people in the Valley romanticize Cowboys in the era of the cattle kingdoms and lionize the risk-taking wildcatters of the energy industry but both of those industries still contribute greatly to the economy of the Valley. I would like people to come to the Museum of South Texas History and see the canal building, farmland forming and citrus packing exhibits to understand the pioneering days of the fresh produce industry. Most importantly, I would like people to remember that for a bright shining 70 or 80 years in the 20th century, the fresh produce industry was the dynamo that drove population growth and economic expansion in the Valley.

HOST: Thank you Neil, this is a part of History that not many people would have known about if you hadn’t taken the time to share your stories.

NEIL: Thank you Pamela.

MUSIC PLAYS

HOST: Neil’s perspective isn’t the whole story. In the last episode, which closes season one we’ll feature another perspective, hope you’ll tune in.

MUSIC PLAYS

This podcast was produced by me, Pamela Morales and in collaboration with Lisa Adam the Curator of Collections. The song is Carpe Diem by Kevin McCloud, licensed under creative commons. Follow us on Anchor to hear more about the lost empires, and send your questions through the Anchor App. You can also subscribe to this podcast through the Apple Podcast App or wherever you listen to your podcasts. Thank you for listening to MOST History: Stories from the Rio Grande.


Transcript

Host: Pamela Morales

Guest: Jimmy Henderson

OPENING ID WITH BACKGROUND MUSIC

The Museum of South Texas History preserves and presents the borderland heritage of South Texas and northeastern Mexico by telling the stories from the Rio Grande.

TRANSITION

HOST – INTRODUCTION

Welcome to Stories from the Rio Grande. I’m Pamela Morales, the Communications Director at the Museum of South Texas History. I’m so glad that the final episode of season will be published. The last episode that was published for this season was __ so it’s been a couple of months. The museum has been very busy, and I hope that you can follow us on our social media platforms, such as Facebook. And make sure you’re also coming to the museum and enjoying it, not just listen to the podcast. In this final episode I interview Jimmy Henderson, who is the owner of Warren Produce in Edinburg. He deals a lot with watermelons. If you’ve listened to the last four episodes, Mr. Niel Cassidy – who worked for packing sheds – sort of gave a broad overview and timeline of how the packing sheds were seen across the valley. Eventually they declined, and there weren’t as many. And even though many of the packing sheds closed their doors, Jimmy has been able to continue and operate in the packing shed industry. He’s going to give us his perspective and some very interesting stories about the packing shed industry, so I hope you stay tuned, listen to the episode, and learn a little bit about valley history.

TRANSITION

HOST

And I’m here with Jimmy Henderson. Welcome, Jimmy.

GUEST

Very glad to be here.

HOST

Jimmy, could you tell us a little bit about yourself? You know, where you’re from? Where do you live? What’s your profession? How old you are – if you don’t mind.

GUEST

[laughs] I don’t mind at all. I am 50 years old; I am a fourth generation Valley rat. That’s what I called those of us that have grown up down here. My great grandfather moved to the Valley around the turn of the century, and he was the first Water Master for Hidalgo County. The Henderson family was from Pharr, and my grandfather Bob was in the produce industry on the supply side. So, my great granddad helped get the water to the fields; my granddad and my father Jim spent their lives supplying packing sheds with the packaging material. My brother and I – I have three brothers, err two brothers – there’s 3 boys and we’re all involved in the produce business I had my first job in the produce industry in the early 80’s my first job was working for Bobby Smith first packing cantaloupes which I was not very good at and…

HOST

Well, how would one not be good at packing?

GUEST

[laughs] Well I’ll tell you what, the cantaloupe Packers made a lot of money. So everybody wanted to be a cantaloupe Packer. Cause you got – I don’t remember exactly how much you got paid for box that you packed, but they’re moving very fast. The cantaloupes would come down a line and fall into a table, and they would be sized and you put them in a box. And so of course I wanted to pack cantaloupes, but I wasn’t big enough or strong enough to do it; I was very slow, and so the shed foreman saw that I was really slowing up production and taking the spot from somebody that was probably a lot better at it than me. So, I got moved in about 15 or 20 minutes to the “shook loft”, which is where you put the boxes together and sent them down a conveyor belt. Cantaloupe season was early and once the cantaloupe was over, we moved straight into watermelons. That was my introduction to the watermelon business: cutting and loading watermelons is what I did that first summer. I cut watermelons for a while, and I was really poor at that also. I’m sure, now that I look back at it, I’m sure that Bobby Smith had a couple loads that got kicked because the watermelons were green, and it flows downhill. The field man probably said, “Well I know who’s cutting the green watermelons: it’s that little gringo kid over there.” [laughs] So, I got moved. After maybe a week, I got moved from the cutting to the loading, which is tough because then you’re picking up the watermelons and then throwing them up on a truck. But that’s where I got the hook set in my mouth for four watermelons, and I’ve been in the watermelon business since 1991. I have worked for some great legendary people in the watermelon business. I worked for Ronnie Borders, who is still in the watermelon business; I worked for Johnny Lowe, who was another legend in the watermelon business; and Bill Warren. Each of those men taught me different facets of this business, and in 1998, myself and my partner John Lapid bought Bill Warren’s company, and we’re still doing watermelons. We’ve expanded; my brother Chris does Hispanic vegetables –all hot peppers and tomatillos and stuff like that– and I still do watermelons. Once you get the bug it kind of sticks with you.

HOST

What exactly is it that you do? Like, what are your primary job duties? Obviously, you don’t pack anything anymore. So, what is it that you do now?

GUEST

And you’d be surprised, but I do. During the summer when we’re harvesting domestic Texas watermelons, I will get out there and pitch watermelons for a little while. People get a kick out of seeing me do that. Depending on the season –from October through early May is an import season for me– we will import watermelons from Mexico. Every season has a different production area, and we will import the watermelons; they’ll come to the bridge where they cross into the states; they become our watermelons. We unload them at our packing facility, and depending on how we’ve sold them, weather we’ve sold them in bins, which are the 24-inch bins that you see in the stores, or cartons which is about a 65-pound container. when you’ve got four, five, six watermelons – depending on their size – you pack them according to how you sold them. This has changed a lot. So, when I first got in the business everything was sold bulk. You bought, you know, trucks would come and they would buy a straight trailer load of watermelons. So, you would size them going into the trucks. You’d have pewees; you’d have mediums; and you’d have jumbos. As these conveyor belts would come down the line, you would have a guy that… You’ve got a truck waiting for peewees; well anything that’s not 16 pounds or under he would turn them on this truck and they would go on that, you know, they shoot into that trailer and somebody would be at the end catching them and then stacking them. There’s an art to stacking watermelons. Back when I first started, they were all seeded watermelons. You’d have peewees, and you’d have mediums which were 17 to 22 pounds. Then you’d have the big ones at 20 to 23 pounds and up, or 26 pounds and up depending on how you sold them. So, that’s how the business used to be. And then, probably the late 80’s and early 90’s, you started doing more bins where you would put them in a bin at your packing shed and then use forklifts to load the trailers. Also, about that time is when the seedless watermelon became popular. By becoming popular I mean it was worth more money, and consumers really dictated the switch to the seedless watermelon. Seedless watermelon are smaller and round, so they’re more difficult to stack. Now you can still stack in bulk, but the business changed into where you wanted to package all that material. And as a throwback to my family’s history in packaging, they were very happy with further packaging because they got to sell more product. The way you pack seedless watermelons is similar to the bulk where you’re going to size them differently, but the retail customers demand a tighter range of sizing. So the industry standard is, pretty much, you’ve got 60 counts, which are 60 watermelons in one of those bins. And that’s like a 10 to 13-pound watermelon, so you got a little bit tighter range. But they stack in the bin nice and pretty. Then you’ve got another size which is called a 45-count, that is typically the retailers, what your grocery stores want to have – that’s a 14 to 17-pound watermelon. And then you’ve got a 36-count watermelon, which is the larger size. It’s 18 pounds to maybe 22 or 23 pounds, and those, traditionally, they go to processors or your club type stores – Sam’s or Costco. So, there’s a lot more packaging that goes into watermelons than there used to be. A lot of times during the winter time, the volume is a lot less than it is in middle of July, and maybe a retailer won’t be sending bins out to the stores because they’re not moving a bunch. But they’ll send a couple pallets of cartons where you’ve got four, five, or six watermelons in a carton and they can take them out as needed, but they’re not using floor space for that bin of watermelons. Packaging is kind of dictated by movement, and if the prices are high in Indiana, the movement’s going to be a little bit less, you’re going to pack more of them in cartons. Because trucks nowadays, they’ll come in the Valley and they’re going to pick up three pallets of watermelons and six pallets of jalapenos and some citrus maybe. That’s kind of how that business has changed. In the old days, at every major city you have what’s called a terminal produce market. Those guys used to serve the function of, they would bring in a bunch of different produce and they would service their stores locally from their warehouse. Well, over the past probably 20 years, that produce market business has gone down a lot because the retailers are reaching out directly to the shippers and basically cutting that portion of the industry out of the work.

TRANSITION

HOST

You did mention that part of your job duties is you help out with the packing. Is there anything else?

GUEST

Yes, my job duties is basically to make sure everything gets sold. What our company does when we’re importing watermelons, obviously we’ve got a relationship with different growers. This particular farmer is going to have watermelons for four to six weeks during the year, and during those four to six weeks he’s got to make sure, you know, it could be this is how he’s going to make his money for the whole year is this little crop of watermelons. So we’ve got a responsibility to market those watermelons. Watermelons have never, never experienced as much growth as they have the last 10 years. A watermelon shipper might used to have been just around during the summertime because that’s the only time people ate watermelons in the states. As the demand for watermelons crept into other months, the watermelon guys –and I’m talking about a generation before me– they started creeping their supply lines. So, maybe they used to grow watermelons, like Bobby Smith, the man I used to my first job. Maybe he had watermelons in may but he wanted to keep selling his customers, so he would team up with somebody in a different producing area that would have watermelons, maybe after him or before him, to continue that supply chain, and that is kind of the model that all commodities have grown into. You would have a base, a “grower base”, that would do a good job at what they did. They perfected the harvesting, the packing and the sales because all of those are intertwined. What we do is we have different growers in Mexico that we will help with advising them on seed, what seed varieties; as a shipper we’re trying to effectively market these watermelons and get the most price the best price we can for a grower without leaving anything in the field. Because if you’ve got 100 acres watermelons, every seed that you plant, it has the potential to give you a certain number of watermelons. Well, it’d be great if you sold these watermelons for $10 a piece. But you know what would happen? You would leave 95% of them out in the field. So, you haven’t done a good job, so what you want to do is maximize the amount of money you get across the whole field by selling everything. And that’s what we do; we do that in Mexico we do that in Texas. Now I don’t have any tractors, I don’t farm anything myself, but in a lot of places I’ve had relationships with people for 15 or 20 years. So, when we move into an area domestically we’re kind of like, Gypsies. Once we leave the Valley, we go to Floresville, TX. We bring the harvest crews. We bring –when I say we I mean, we, our company, my company– we bring the harvest crews. We bring the packing crew, and these are the same guys that have been working for us all winter. They know how to pack watermelons; they know what I expect, but they know what is good and what has to be graded out. So, we move into a town, and I’ve got a trailer, and I move into a little camp – we call it “going on the road.” You stay in that location for six, seven weeks while the crop’s in harvest, and then from there you move up the state again to the next area that’s in production. So, it’s kind of a nomadic life.

HOST

Yyou know, I guess for maybe people who not necessarily know all of these the way all works, so then you facility in Edinburg, that’s sort of like headquarters, and then the other places in Texas they’re kind of, like, the little franchise or franchisee type thing?

GUEST

Technically, you would term it a seasonal office. The onion businesses is similar once the Mexican import season is over. In the Valley seasons over, there’s more production that comes up in the winter garden, or New Mexico, or Colorado it’s very similar because onion shippers have done the same thing. They had a window where they were able to service their customers –I’m going to say Kroger, for instance, it’s a nationwide chain – Kroger had one guy that they called for onions because he always had them. Now, they weren’t always coming from Hidalgo County. Sometimes they were coming from the winter garden, sometimes they were coming from Colorado, you know? But they just had to make one phone call to get whatever onions, and very similar with watermelons, a lot of lot of grocery chains or buyers.

HOST

For the year-round I guess the thing that comes to mind is the reason, or what I’m assuming the reason being, for the year-round and the different places would growing watermelons is because of the climate I’m assuming?

GUEST

Right. South Texas and South Florida, okay? Those two locales start the domestic production in early May, say, and as the climate gets better, you know other areas to the farther North are able to produce watermelons, too. They’ve got to be planted after the danger of frost has passed. These are the changes that have happened in this industry. It used to be you go out and you plant a seed in the ground. Well, now everybody is concerned about their window, their marketing window, their production window. So, right now as we’re speaking, everybody’s watermelons for Hidalgo County are in a greenhouse, and the plants are growing in a greenhouse, and they’re going to get to be about 6 inches tall, and here in about a week or two they’ll be planted. So, they’ll plant these transplants out in their field, and they will have put plastic mulch down the row so that the soil temperatures will be a little bit hotter; so that they’ll be able to withstand some of the cold that we’re going to have. Everybody’s always looking to get their window a little bit earlier because you’re chasing the market; it’s the same everywhere. You might have a little bit of different growing practices in say South Florida, South of Lake Okeechobee, where their big problem is too much rain, and they set up to pump water off of their fields where everybody else is worried about getting enough water on those plants. But whether you’re in the states or you’re in southern Mexico on the Yucatan Peninsula in the state of Campeche it’s very similar. You’re going in with transplants early, and you might put some direct seed in later because it’s a lot cheaper. We do that in Texas later in the summer when you’re really hitting the windows that everybody around the whole country can grow watermelons. They’ve got watermelons in production in Missouri and Indiana, Illinois, all up and down from Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina Delaware, even Colorado and Iowa have watermelon in the late summer. Your prices are a lot lower during those times. You’re going to have some direct seeded watermelons, but by that time of the year everybody can grow watermelons in their backyard

HOST

So, you mentioned a little bit about the practices of watermelon and all of that really good stuff I think a lot of people wouldn’t have known. Could you, sort of describe or mention, give us a timeline sort of? We started working in the produce industry in the 80’s with Bobby Smith, could you tell us a little bit about how that was like?

GUEST

I don’t want to overstate the case, because it sounds good that I was a cutter and a harvester and a loader and all that, but I really did that for two semesters. As soon as I was old enough to get another job, I got another job because it’s hard work. Like I said, back in those days everything on the watermelon side was done bulk, meaning you loaded you loaded the trucks with loose watermelons on the floor. Now, that really started to change. After I left college and moved back to the Valley, moved back to McAllen, you know I went to work for, my first job was with Ronnie Borders worked in the watermelon business. And at that time, we were still shipping things. It was all bulk that I did with Ronnie, and I worked for him the summer of 1991. He, his son Noel, grew watermelons in the Valley, and Noel is probably the biggest single grower in the country maybe by now. At that time, he grew watermelons in the Valley and then I went to East Texas with his father Ronnie. I had moved out of the field work and more helping get trucks to the field and make sure they got the right sized watermelons loaded on this truck. Because if you have a truck going to say Kansas City, and he’s supposed to have mediums and you put pee-wee’s on them, when he got to Kansas City he would be rejected. Rejections caused most of the loss in the produce industry. Because you still got to pay the freight, all those watermelons are now worth drastically less than they were when they left here. Now you’re in a poor position in that you’ve got to find somebody that has you at a disadvantage. And that’s still the same across all produce, still the same case, you know. If you have a problem, you’ve got a big problem. So it’s important to do your job right at the shipping end of it, because once the truck closes its doors and goes on the way, you’re going to have big freight bills. That’s one of the things that has changed in this industry a lot is the amount of money spent on freight.

HOST

And one of the things that we sort of know is the industry, that fresh produce industry you know fruits, vegetables, all of that was such a big part of the Valley economy.

GUEST

Absolutely.

HOST

Okay, in that aspect how do you see the changes? Has it been good or bad? As far as, you know, like you mentioned the changes that happened.

GUEST

Changes happened and they are really changes that every industry has faced, okay. We’ve got a great climate for heat, so we could have the first producing fresh fruits and vegetables in the country, and that was what made us such a big deal. But it’s also got its deficiencies, in that it’s a very humid climate. There’s a lot of disease that will attack your plants. So our window was, we had a great window for many years, but as farming improvements grew, California – who’s got a lot better climate than we do: they’re cooler so they couldn’t infringe on our earliness, but– they could be in production a lot longer; they got much better yields. Well as improvements in agriculture, you know, we were talking about lane plastic to warm up the soil temperature and California would increase or would become earlier and earlier every year. When California started, they could survive and turn a profit on a much lower price than the guys in the Valley could. The guys in the Valley wouldn’t have the kind of yields, they would have more expenses due to more fumigation that they had to do to keep the diseases at bay. They had to realize a lot higher cost or a lot higher price to the ground than the guys in California because they could survive it at much cheaper margins. Well, as California kept moving their window forward the window for Texas kept shrinking, and the same thing would happen in Florida: more areas in Florida could produce on top of our window, so all that competition really started our decline in a lot of the row crops. I’m not talking about citrus because citrus takes a much more substantial investment, but your cantaloupes, your honeydews, your onions, your watermelons, cabbage, all these crops that we had competitive advantage of for a long time, as farming became more technical and more sophisticated, other regions other producing regions could go longer.

HOST

Do you think also, maybe a lot of the packing sheds in the Valley didn’t adapt as well? As far as like maybe their practices…

GUEST

I don’t know about that. We definitely do things a lot cheaper now, and we’re a lot more efficient. That was driven by necessity; to stay alive you had to find ways to be more efficient. I mean the big numbers come from the sales side, and if the sales aren’t at a certain number, the money returned to the ground is not going to be enough. So, when you’re not hitting those big prices early in the season like you used to, then the margin that the farmers making is not going to be enough. If the farmers is not making enough, there’s nothing for a package to make money on, and so they go bye, bye. Now, in the 90’s –moving back to watermelons which I’m more comfortable talking about because I know more about them– in the 90’s there was a duty on Mexican watermelons that was started on May 1. That was a protection for our domestic growers. The Mexican watermelon grower could not efficiently market his fruit in the United States because on May 1st they would have to pay a duty. And that duty was meant to save the domestic production for domestic growers. Well NAFTA did away with that duty, so now the growers in the Valley had to compete with growers in Tampico, Jalisco all these areas that could produce good watermelons for May. Tampico and Veracruz could really produce good watermelons for May, and without the duty, those supplies came to the States. That really affected the amount of watermelons that were planted, or that were feasible because the same rules apply. There’s a certain number that you need to get; if you don’t get that number, if you’re not selling watermelons for this price, then there’s not going to be any money returning to the farm and they can’t make it. It’s very expensive. We had mentioned watermelons, it’s a 90-day crop, and it used to be a relatively cheap crop to grow, but not anymore. The seeds are highly selected. They’re a lot better plants, they produce a lot better plants, but that’s a lot more money that you’re spending in seed. You’re doing a lot more land preparation; you’re using plastic; you’re growing the seeds out in seedlings in the greenhouse. All these things increase the cost, and as your cost of production increases so does the number that you need to get to make money. Watermelons are still a crop that is harvested 100% manually, meaning you have to have people out there; you’ve got to have cutters that know what they’re doing –not like a young Jimmy Henderson. You’ve got to have that cutter knowing what he’s looking for, to cut the watermelon when it’s ready. You’ve got to have loaders that go and they pick that watermelon up off the ground and throw it up into a container. Whether that container is a bobtail pickup truck or it’s a plastic bin –which is how we do it– or it’s a school bus that’s had its top cut off, they’re throwing that watermelon up. That watermelon is then transported to a central packing area where they’re sorted, and, again, they’re sorted by hand; they’re sorted by people, real people real jobs. As we know, the labor force that does that is predominantly 98% Hispanic, and for generations that was fine and dandy. Now, it’s a problem because you can’t hire illegal aliens to work for you anymore. So, the pool of labor that does this job –and like I said, it’s a very hard job; it’s a lot harder than what most of the population would do for a living – so the pool is shrinking on the number of people that would do that. And that’s what I consider one of our best assets: that we have good people that know what they’re doing. So, a farmer can do a great job growing a crop and all this; but if there’s no one there to harvest it, all that money is thrown away. The fact that we have gente, the fact that we have people that follow us around – because we are fair and we treat everybody right – that’s a big plus on our side because you can’t do anything unless that carnival comes to town. That’s one of the big things that change, the changing of the guard, okay? Our window getting smaller here in the Valley; our window getting smaller for profitable production of vegetables. Also you’ve got to look at our population growth. So, I graduated high school in 1987, and 2nd St was a dirt road north of Dove, okay. This whole place, the growth in the Valley is tremendous, and all this growth takes up late. All these residences in the new neighborhood they’re building over here, all that is productive farmland that has been taken out, because it’s more valuable to sell it for commercial purposes than to keep growing cotton or growing vegetables. Your window now is shrunk to the point where you don’t want to risk that money to grow the crop if you’re not going to make it back and you can sell it for more. This is a twofold thing: we had a collapsing window to produce our goods and you’ve also got an expanding population base that’s competing for that land that was good farmland. But now it’s good to plant homes or plant businesses on. That’s another thing: the urban growth in the Valley has dictated less farming opportunities.

TRANSITION

 

HOST

You mentioned that you left the Valley to go to school.

GUEST

I did. I went to school; I went to Texas A&M.

HOST

Okay, so then when you came back where there any changes? So in the 80s, Mr Cassidy’s perspective is that in the 80s the collapse happened, a lot of packing sheds started closing, a lot of people were out of jobs. Then he left: he went to go work in California, came back in the early 2000s. But he said in the 90s that there was a lot of… because the packing sheds closed, the economy wasn’t so great, and then NAFTA came in, and then the population started blooming, and so then now there was all these shopping plazas, and businesses and things like that. Did you see any of that change do you feel like…

GUEST

Looking back you can see the change. At the time it was happening it’s just like everything else. When you’re in the middle of it maybe you don’t see that your hair is getting Gray, or you don’t see that you can’t run as fast as you used to. But looking back at it you can say, “Yeah, I can see that now,” you know? In the 80’s, in ‘83 and ‘89 we had real bad freezes down here that wrecked the citrus industry, and that’s always been the, I would say, the backbone of Valley agriculture because it was so dominant. Those two freezes hurt a lot, and they allowed Florida in California to take part of that market that Texas citrus would normally fight them away from. Well, when they didn’t have anything, it enabled Florida and California to take over some of that territory. I also talk about the labor, and the labor here –whether you’re harvesting or clipping onions, or you’re picking citrus or you’re harvesting cabbage or watermelons or whatever –a lot of that labor pool, as the urban growth happened, well there were low paying jobs available. Those low paying jobs were a lot better than working in the field. Now, I will say this: the work in the field paid great, but it was hard. So there’s that tradeoff. I was talking about that I always wanted to pack cantaloupes because those guys could make, you know, $100 a day. In 1983 that was big money. Guys that work for me, that unload trucks, they can make three, four hundred dollars a day. It’s hard work, but you know not everybody wants to work that hard. When you can get $10 or $15.00 an hour working at Starbucks –and I don’t know if that’s the going wage and I don’t know if they hire everybody; it sure looks like they hire anybody, but a lot of people would rather do that than work out in the sun. So you look back and you say, okay as the urban development was booming, you know, all that shopping, all that retail business took away potential field workers and it made the price of those field workers that you do get go up. Because unless you’re going to pay more to keep somebody here, they’re going to leave. And that’s one of the things that we deal with all the time. Now you have to pay people a good wage or they’re going to find something that’s easier to do.

HOST

Do you feel or do you believe that your labor practices and all of that has kept the packing shed still going?

GUEST

Well I think it’s a part of it because we are able to provide work for people, not just for six weeks while we’re harvesting Hidalgo County watermelons. We can provide a job for people all year long. That helps stabilize your labor force. Paying above minimum wage helps stabilize your labor force. Offering different perks stabilizes your labor force. Treating people like humans and not and not just like fresh meat. That cost you money, when you have to go through new people every two, three weeks. That doesn’t work. You want to be able to train somebody how you like to do things and then keep them coming back all the time. Now that’s not hard, no matter how good… err I mean that’s not easy, no matter how good you treat your people, because a lot of the people that do this kind of work are rough, and the rough edges have consequences but anyway…

HOST

It sort of seems like the economy or rather like the fresh produce industry probably won’t make a comeback, or rather as big as it was once.

GUEST

No, it’ll never be like it was before because we’ve moved into a global situation for food supplies. And again, like NAFTA where you got plus and minuses, that’s good and bad for this country. It’s my belief that at any time that that your food is not under your complete control, you’re at the mercy of somebody else. Whether it’s your neighbor or another country, that’s a problem. So, just like in every other aspect of agriculture in our country, it’s a shrinking population, and I’m fearful of the day that there’s no more American farmer. When there’s no more American farmer, there’s no more companies to do what I do. So your focus always has got to be to making sure that American farmer is doing well. As it gets more and more competitive, and more and more of the farmers have their children go do something else, it’s very similar to the watermelon labor. This is not a business that gets young workers; none of my cutters that are in their 50s or 60s or 70s want their kids to do this. Their kids are doing something else, and we’re not able to get the people from Mexico that do it in Mexico can’t come do it because it’s illegal, and it’s hard for them to get a green card to come and do such a low skilled job because the population thinks “Oh, that will take the job away from Americans, and so we don’t need them to come.” Well that’s not true, because you don’t have very many US citizens that want to do that job, and that’s a big challenge that we’ve got.

HOST

How do you think the future will look like? Well I mean, you sort of explained that, but the track that it’s going now, the timeline. Do you think you will see another collapse in your lifetime?

GUEST

I don’t think we’ll see a collapse because I don’t think we’re big enough to collapse. Texas – again talking about watermelons – Texas used to be the number one or number two producer of watermelons in the country. But that has changed, and now we’re consistently third maybe even fourth behind Florida, California and Georgia will sneak in sometimes and outproduce Texas, because the producing areas of Texas are shrinking for the same reasons that they shrink in the Rio Grande Valley: the windows, the lack of return. So, really, you’ve got the Valley , you’ve got an area I’m going to call it the “Winter Garden” but that’s kind of from San Antonio South from I-35 to I-37 maybe in that area. Then East Texas still produces watermelons, but not really commercially anymore because it’s hard to get plots of land big enough to commercially, effectively farm there. Anytime you get north of Falfurrias, your labor is going to be a big issue. So, a lot of people that do have the land where they could plant watermelons don’t want to mess with the labor. They’re just like, “Hey, I could plant 200 acres of watermelon here, but how am I going to get 60 people up here to do this job?” Because you can’t get the kids… they used to hire the football team to come out and do it. Well they don’t do that anymore. They’re not going to do that anymore, and you can’t hire illegal labor; and the legal labor maybe wants too much money, and you can’t. It’s an impasse, so we’re not headed for a collapse because we’re not big enough to collapse. It could just fade away, but I don’t think so; I’m optimistic. I think that if we’ll be able to go at the pace we’re at, we’ll be able to go for a long time.

HOST

What is one misconception that people have about your particular industry?

GUEST

That it’s easy. It’s fight every day. It’s a fight because you’re fighting… it’s a free market and I love and hate it because every day is a new day. What you sold your stuff for yesterday can change in six hours. It’s not easy, it’s very difficult. My biggest job is to be like the leader of this of this Gypsy carnival, but everybody’s got to be marching in the same direction. Every day you’ve got to have your sales lined up; you’ve got to have your harvesters lined up; you’ve got to have the trucks lined up; you’ve got to have the packers lined up; you’ve got to have all the inputs lined up. It’s exciting and frustrating every day

HOST

You mention that in 1998 you bought the business? So, how did that happen?

GUEST

Well, Bill Warren, who was the man I was working for, he wanted to retire. He did not want, to quote him, his father had died at 55 and he “didn’t want to die at a desk selling watermelons,” and so he wanted me to buy his company out. And of course, I didn’t have the money. So, one of my customers, at that time was a customer and a friend ended up becoming partners in buying out Bill Warren. We kept the same name, and it’s funny my partner John – his name is John Lapid, and at the time he was a as a customer – he bought watermelons. He had a place on the market in Brooklyn, NY, and at that time his vision was that he needed to either get bigger or get out. As we were talking about earlier, people were looking to make one phone call and have their watermelon supply. They didn’t want to call this guy in May and this guy in June and this one in August. You want to have one supplier, so he became partners with me. There’s another – I like to call him my twin – another guy in Florida that he became partners with and also partners with a guy in South Carolina. So, John was able to secure his supply lines by becoming partners with different people in different parts of the country. He’s maintained, and he’s 100% correct, you make more money becoming partners with people than you do trying to do it all on your own. So, John and his company Melon One is, I don’t think it’s debatable, the biggest. He handles more watermelons than anybody else in the country because of the way he has set up. They’ve got supplies from Mexico through our company here; he’s got supplies in South Florida all the way through Florida. They do, very similar to me, they start in South Florida and they’ve got watermelons through Georgia and South Carolina all the way up to Delaware. John’s another Gypsy; they go on the road. Wherever they’re packing watermelons, that’s where they set up shop. It lends a lot because people like to see the stakeholders everyday working, and I feel like that’s a big part of our success. Once I learned that lesson, it’s something that stuck with me. People want to see that the bosses are there working just as hard as everybody else. I might not be chunking watermelons but I’m there before you get there and I’m there after you leave. So, that is part of what I think is part of our success now.

HOST

Especially since, as mentioned, a lot of the packing sheds didn’t survive that collapse. So, you know the Museum South Texas History has a little area in the exhibits about packing sheds and sort of like the industry. What is one thing, or maybe a few things, that you would want people to know about the industry in the Valley?

GUEST

Part of this, I’ve got four kids and I’m blessed that they are exposed to what they’ve been exposed to, but what I see is a lot a lot of people don’t know where their food comes from. How does it get from that field to my fork? I would like people to realize just how much work takes place getting that food from the dirt to your refrigerator. There’s a lot that goes into it, and there’s a lot of hard work in between. I don’t think people realize –and I’m not just talking about kids – I think it’s important for kids to realize how much work people have done in the past to get them in a position they’re in now. It seems to me like it’s always been that way. You know it was a much harder life to live in 1800 in South Texas than it is now, and every generation has done something to improve the lives of their children. It’s impossible to think of anybody having it tougher than their parents did. You could have less money than your parents, but you are living your whole day in air conditioning. I would challenge anybody to tell me that they have a tougher life than their parents or grandparents. They do that, we do that constantly. We want our kids to not have to do the things that we did. So, I would like people, if they’re at the museum and looking at that packing shed display, to really think about what it took to get that grape fruit off the tree and put on a railcar to be delivered by rail. Or watermelons, you know next time you’re at the grocery store and you pick up a 16-pound seedless watermelon, think about your granddad. They used to like the 40-pound Charleston Grays, Jubilee’s or these great big watermelons. Well every great big watermelon had to be picked up by a man or woman, but generally a man was picking that sucker up. I mean that’s backbreaking work, and every watermelon to this day starts the same way: somebody has cut it off the vine and thrown it onto a container of some sort to get it to your store. There’s a lot of work in between and a lot of it is hard labor.

HOST

Well thank you so much, Jimmy, for your insight and your perspective about working in the produce industry.

GUEST

Thank you. My pleasure.

HOST

And just a side note, this episode was recorded after Lisa Adam, the Curator of Collections at the museum retired. Lisa worked at the museum for almost 16 years and helped tremendously in collaborating on this podcast. I cannot thank you enough, Lisa, for always helping me and I hope that you have a great retirement here at the museum we wish you the best of luck, and I hope you’re still listening to the podcast.

HOST – CLOSING REMARKS

This episode was recorded after Lisa Adam, the curator of collections at the museum, retired from the museum. Lisa worked at the museum for almost 16 years and helped tremendously in collaborating on this podcast. We wish you the best of luck, Lisa, and I hope you are still listening.

OUTRO

HOST

This podcast was produced by me, Pamela Morales, and in collaboration with Lynne Beeching, the Development Officer at the museum. Song is “Carpe Diem” by Kevin MacLeod. Licensed under Creative Commons. Follow us on Anchor to hear more about The Lost Empires and send your questions through the Anchor app. You can also subscribe to this podcast through the Apple Podcasts app or wherever you listen to your podcasts. Thank you for listening to MOSTHistory: Stories from the Rio Grande.