Strawberries: A family’s fight for success
The Vargas family struggles to preserve the last piece of agriculture.
by Veronica Sepulveda
photography by Kelley Maggiulli
It’s four a.m. The alarm is as welcome as an intruder; it is dark and chilly outside, and the last thing anyone wants to do is get up and pick strawberries. Yet, the strawberries are Adrian Vargas’ family business, and he embraces that morning alarm with enthusiasm. Commuting from Rancho Cucamonga, Adrian arrives at his main strawberry field at Towne Avenue and Baseline Road in Claremont at six a.m. Alternating between his different fields, two in Claremont and one in La Verne, he greets several workers who begin the back-wrenching chore of picking the fields’ four strawberry varieties. Adrian is often quick to join in the picking chore, but today he has loads of other business. For not only does Adrian sell fruit, he also sells strawberry plants and makes morning deliveries of strawberries to restaurants and grocery stores. And along with the meetings, deliveries, and checking in on his three fields, he has to deal with the landowner selling his rented field, trespassers, burglaries and constant maintenance. The thefts are the worst. Expensive tractors and equipment have been stolen from his Baseline Road field. It hurts the business bad, but Adrian shakes it off with his humble personality. “It’s OK,” he says. “They probably needed it more than I do.” One might say that is the pitfalls of farming in a city and having the last patch of agricultural land. He understands that there are issues with having a large open field of fruit, but he approaches the endeavor with a positive attitude and soldiers on doing what he loves with the supportive help of his family.
Adrian Vargas, born in Cotilja, Michoacan, Mexico, came to the United States in 1972 at age 12. He moved in with his mom’s cousin in La Verne and began to work for Cal Fruits in San Dimas. During that time, he also worked for Kimura Nursery and Coiner Nursery in La Verne. At 17, he met his beautiful wife Maria who lived down the street from him in La Verne. He says from the first meeting he knew she was the one he wanted to marry. Following three months of dating in 1977, they went to Mexico to partake in the special ceremony. Maria was 15; a year later came their first child, Adrian Jr.
Adrian returned and worked hard. Jim Tagamia, a business man, noted that effort at Cal Fruits. Adrian did not transition right away; he continued working for Cal Fruits, but at age 23, he joined Tagami Strawberry Farms and worked there for the next eight years. Together, Jim and Adrian maintained two strawberries fields: one in San Dimas between Arrow Highway and Walnut Avenue; the other in Claremont at the corner of Towne Avenue and Baseline Road, making for 14 combined acres. By 1993, Jim opted out of the business, and Adrian took over the land at the Claremont location. He made a deal with the land owner to pay the property taxes and maintain the field. As the business began to thrive, he brought in his family members to help with field maintenance. His father, now living in Mexico, was a great supporter and helped Adrian maintain the fields. He continued to grow strawberries, but with 210 freeway construction, culminating in its 2002 finish, the field was cut down to three acres, which made maintenance easier, but the strawberry profit suffered severally.
Family contribution was important to Adrian. He would bring Adrian Jr., beginning at age 3, to help him plant the strawberry plants. Years later, Maria and Adrian saw the birth of Myra, Erica, Jaime and Lissette. All five children grew up on the fields helping their father plant seeds, water and pick strawberries. “I told my kids this is the opportunity for you guys to learn and know about farming, because this is where the food is coming from. It’s good to go to school and become something else, but this is the chance to learn.” Adrian says he wanted to teach his children the concept of what it is to work hard to provide food for the family. The children have families of their own now; yet some, along with cousins, still have a hand running the family business. Erica, Adrian’s middle child, has taken the lead in managing all the paperwork for the business and runs the stand in La Verne. Adrian Jr. helps his dad plant, pick and sell strawberries.
Trying to expand, Adrian searched for more selling locations. La Verne was first on his list since it was where he grew up, plus the city did not have a strawberry stand. Help came from Brian Bowcock, Three Valleys Municipal Water District elected representative; he referred Adrian to the United Methodist Church on D Street where the Church owned a large piece of land suitable for agricultural use. In 2010, Adrian gained one acre of land and began to plow and plant. He says his La Verne stand has proven to be successful as many local residents come daily to purchase fresh picked strawberries.
Still, selling fruit is challenging, and much effort goes into growing the strawberries. “Not many people know where I am,” Adrian says. His advertisement consists of word of mouth, but he is working on advertising and creating a company logo. Expenses, too, are high. To maintain the farms costs about $75,000 a year. His water bill contributes to much of the cost at $2,000 a month for the Baseline Road location and about $1,700 for the La Verne field and a second Claremont field located on Baseline Road on the border of La Verne and Claremont. Fortunately, the new field uses the La Verne water supply, which is almost half the cost of Claremont’s water. Fertilizer can cost between $45-53 a bag. He uses a total of 80 bags for all three fields. Currently, Adrian makes about $125,000 a year in profit, including profit from selling strawberries to Howie’s Market in San Bernardino and at Los Angeles farmers markets. He also makes money landscaping for professional buildings and homes. “I can do anything, landscaping, cutting trees, housework, anything.”
Another struggle for Adrian is working with the new landowner. The original landowner forged an agreement that Adrian could utilize the field for agricultural use as long as he paid the property tax and water bill. After many years, she has developed dysmnesia, and her daughter has taken over property management, with a different view on the use of the land. The land is now destined to be a residential subdivision. He may be forced to leave the field in July. Adrian is not happy with the decision because this field has become a large part of his life. “This is where I raised my family; it’s like taking the food away from my kids. It’s sad, but you have to do it.” While final building approval has yet to come from Claremont, Adrian is preparing for a decision not in his favor and has been sending his equipment to the new field on the city border. “I wish there were more support for the farmers; this is where the food is coming from, the Earth and the ground. If we buy it from different states, we don’t know what they spray with. But with local farmers, we have more control. It’s better to deal with honest people.”
Calaycay to the rescue
Adrian’s long-time friend, Corey Calaycay, former mayor and present day Claremont City Council member, anticipating the situation, invited Adrian to plant one acre of strawberries on undeveloped property near his house. Adrian accepted the offer for the current growing season. This 2012-’13 agreement has given him a sense of security. If and when the Baseline/Towne location is taken away, Corey’s land has space to hold his equipment, and Adrian feels he can continue producing enough strawberries to make a profit. The final housing development decision will not be made until June. For now, with his three fields, Adrian is busier than ever picking and transporting his strawberries, along with running his plant deliveries. At night, his wife and daughter are hard at work, making chocolate covered strawberries and strawberry jam. Corey has also created a website for Adrian (vargasfarms.com), which will help him gain awareness and will also allow him to sell strawberries online and to make home deliveries. “When he sells, he makes sure everything from bottom to top is quality product. That’s why I’m trying to market him,” says Corey.
Strawberries with flavor
Strawberry season may begin in January and continue through June, but field preparation begins late summer. In September, fields are plowed and rejuvenated. Dirt rows are sculpted that will hold the plants. Next, plastic covers are installed that will protect the young plants from cold weather and later keep the strawberries clean. After the plastic is placed, the planting begins, first with Maui onions along the perimeter of each row. The Maui onions keep the bugs away and make it so the plants are organically grown. With careful maintenance, proper watering and good luck from the weather, the strawberries are ready for an early January harvest. The long process has become second nature to the Vargas family.
Adrian Vargas plants four different strawberry types: Camarosa, Albion, San Andreas and Monterey. Each has a different look and flavor. Camarosa strawberries are a deep red color and are very large; they are also the sweetest strawberry. Albion strawberries are usually on the smaller side and are very sweet as well. San Andreas strawberries have more of an orange color with white stripes inside. They have more of a crunch and are a bit sour. The Monterey strawberries have a slight peach taste and are really juicy inside.