A bright family future for Greene & Hemly

Most of California’s 60-plus pear farms are family operations. Practically all are multigenerational businesses. Greene and Hemly, Inc. originated when Josiah B. Greene settled in the Sacramento River Delta south of Sacramento in 1850.

Virginia Hemly Chhabra and Matthew Hemly are sixth- generation California pear growers. Besides seven varieties of pears, they grow five varieties of apples plus cherries and kiwi.

The third and fourth generations of Greenes were on a family trip to Pacific Grove for the Fourth of July weekend when Navy Ensign Al Hemly was spending the weekend at nearby Monterrey. Hemly saw a young Ms. Greene (fourth generation) near a car. He thought she was cute and wanted to get her attention. At the time, he thought throwing some firecrackers over her way was a good idea. It was the fourth of July after all.

It worked; she walked over and gave him a lecture on manners and safety. He accepted the reprimand, and his apology was sincere enough that he got an invitation to dinner. Their individual spunk and his ingenuity in turning the situation into a plus sparked a relationship that became a lifelong union and launched the new business name: Greene & Hemly, Inc. Their son Doug’s children are the sixth generation actively involved in the business.

The operation today

Doug is president and CEO of Greene & Hemly. His wife Cathy’s main focus is government and regulatory compliance, which is a full-time job these days. Their son, Matthew, is the orchard manager and their daughter, Virginia Hemly Chhabra, is in charge of the packing and cooling operation. Like many family operations, some family members have no intention of staying involved in the family business. When Doug, Virginia and Matthew headed off to college they each had no intention of coming back to the farm, but for various reasons they were drawn back and are happy with that decision.

Doug Hemly (center) is a fifth-generation California pear grower. His son Matthew, (left) and daughter Virginia Hemly Chhabra (right) are now active in the family business.

Bartlett, Bosc, Starkrimson, Forelle, Comice, Taylor’s Gold and Seckel pear varieties are grown on the farm. California ranks number one in Bartlett pear production and grows 40 percent of the nation’s crop. It also produces 25 percent of all pears grown in the country. The family also grows apples, cherries and kiwi. Apple varieties include Gala, Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, Fuji, Braeburn and Pink Lady. The total operation is a combination of owned acres, leased acres and managed farms. They also handle cooling and packing for other growers in the area.

Virginia says, “Along with the day-to-day weather challenges and year-to-year labor challenges, one of the larger things we are dealing with is the California water situation and Bay Delta Conservation Plan [BDCP].” Water is becoming an issue everywhere, but the BDCP is bringing back discussion of a canal that was voted down over 30 years ago. There are many practical hurdles that should have been settled years ago. Virginia says, “The canal will wipe out agriculture along the river. There are better ways to achieve the same goals that wouldn’t have the negative environmental and economic impact that the canal would have.”

The secret to longevity

When asked how Greene & Hemly has survived over the years she replies, “Luck. You can’t be in something this volatile without a certain amount of luck.” She also says that patience and understanding are key elements. “It is part of the pear industry. It can take a decade to get an orchard into full production, especially the older-style orchards. That same orchard can stay in production for over a century,” she says. The average age of California pear orchards is 33 to 100 years. She adds, “Your approach is different than someone growing tomatoes, for instance. It affects how you make decisions. You don’t have the chance of two crops a year. You don’t want to be shortsighted or penny-wise and pound-foolish.”

The size of the operation also has benefits. Virginia says, “It takes a certain size operation to be profitable. You can’t support a family on 10 acres of pears. There would have to be another source of income. You also have to have a certain size to afford the needed equipment.” The average California pear orchard is 130 acres.

People are another important part of the business. Virginia says, “My father and brother are extremely good at what they do. I run the packinghouse and see very good fruit coming in every day. Matthew knows what he is doing. My father is extremely flexible and is always looking for other and better ways to do things.” Besides the family, the staff fluctuates from around 20 people up to 400 at the peak of the harvest and packing season.

Doug’s flexibility and foresight led to their first block of organic apples over 20 years ago. Virginia says, “Our company policy has always been to go as softly as possible. Dad saw what was coming and wanted to be in front of it. Codling moth is one of the primary pests in the area. He knew that organophosphates were going out, and he knew we needed to try something else. He felt the best thing to do was to take this block of apples and go organic.” That proved to be a good decision. Now Greene & Hemly’s operation is between 10 and 15 percent organic. As the market for organically grown produce grows, they will increase their acreage accordingly. Virginia says, “Right now, organic can support so much. We could not market everything in our market window if we were totally organic.”

Growing conventionally doesn’t mean they’re not following sustainability practices. Virginia says, “There isn’t a single pear grower who isn’t completely and utterly committed to being sustainable. If you aren’t sustainable, that means you can’t get to do it again. [It means] that you are abusing the privilege that has been given you. You need to walk softly on the Earth, do the best you can by what Mother Nature has given you, treat everyone fairly, and hopefully make enough money to be able to do it again next year.”

A typical day

A typical day depends on the season. Winter and spring are somewhat similar. Planning and forecasting take the bulk of the time. It includes putting together the budget, following and tracking it, and making adjustments as the season progresses. Between harvest and the spring season there is pruning and orchard cleanup. In the spring, the trees must be constantly monitored for any pest outbreaks and for fertilization needs. Virginia says, “We don’t do any spraying just because or by the calendar. It takes constant monitoring; you never want to do more than you should or spray less than you need to.”

The harvest season is the busiest. They start harvesting pears the first part of July, and the last of the apples come in at the end of October. August is the most hectic. They run double shifts and the schedule is constantly changing. Virginia says, “We are reviewing harvest plans, orders and quality all at the same time. There are many variables. I get in a lot of walking. The day-to-day has changed since I came back in 1997, but it stays interesting and never gets boring.”

Virginia says they are not really doing anything different than anyone else. They are always trying new things to see if there is a simpler or better way. They have looked into some picking aids, but so far nothing really practical. She says, “Apples and pears really have to be handpicked to get the best quality.”

After the harvest season there is still some packing and shipping to be done. Then there’s the end of the year accounting. It’s also a good time to review the past year and look at what others have done. Virginia says, “We rely heavily on university research, associations and magazines to keep us up to date. We don’t just review what is going on in the U.S.; we try to keep abreast of what is going on in the world. We never turn down information; it’s just like chocolate.”

The future

Will the tradition continue with the seventh generation? It’s still too early to tell. Virginia’s oldest is only 11. It’s possible she’ll head off to college with no intent of coming back to the farm; then again, maybe she’ll decide the farm is where she wants to be. Anything is possible.

The author is a longtime contributor to Growing based in Council Bluffs, Iowa.