“You can’t fall in love with one crop,” Jon Vessey says as he drives down a canal road on his way out to the field. It’s here on his family ranch in Holtville, Calif., where that advice goes hand in hand with Vessey’s success.
Vessey and Company Inc. grows 40 different vegetables conventionally and 27 organically, and it is that diversity that has helped this fourth-generation grower and shipper succeed in the Imperial Valley. But it’s his hard work, dedication and character that led his peers to honor him this year: Vessey is the 2013 Western Growers Award of Honor recipient. He’ll receive the award in November at the 88th Annual Meeting in Hawai’i.
The family started in the produce business after Vessey’s grandfather Elton and his wife, Maude, moved to Los Angeles from Wisconsin in the late 1800s. There, they started a wholesale vegetable operation at the L.A. market. In the 1920s, Elton decided to grow lettuce rather than just buying it, so they started growing in Imperial Valley with Salinas and Hollister to follow. To make year-round production possible, Elton’s son Jackson Vessey added Brentwood, Marana, Blythe and Wilcox, Ariz. The family eventually sold its northern operations, and it was in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s Vessey said they decided to really diversify, leading them to their current operation.
Today, they farm on approximately 10,000 acres in the Imperial Valley, and Vessey runs the business with son Jack, the fourth generation. Jack is just one of the family members cheering Jon on to receive the Award of Honor this fall.
“We’re not the biggest, we’re not in the limelight, but I think they saw the true package in my father,” Jack said of the WG Board of Directors choosing his father for the honor. “You go to my dad and he’s going to tell you the truth; he’s going to be honest and do the best job he can day in and day out. Anybody knows when they shake my dad’s hand, he says ‘yes’ to it, that it’s going to get done and you don’t have to worry about it.” It’s one of the most important qualities in the produce business, he said. “I think that’s why my dad stands out. He’s taught me your word and your honor is key.”
“It’s just an unbelievable honor,” Jon Vessey said of the award. “I’d like to thank all the directors who felt I deserved an honor like this. It’s very humbling.”
Vessey is not only a multi-generational farmer; he’s also a multi-generational Western Growers board member. Vessey’s father, Jackson, served on the board for many years, and then Vessey held his own tenure for many years. Son Jack also served on the board, making not only farming, but Western Growers, part of their family tradition. “We met a lot of very, very intelligent and great people in Western Growers,” Vessey said. “It’s been a life-long friendship with many of the board members, and that will continue whether I’m on the board or my son’s on the board. Once you make close friends in Western Growers, they’ll always be your friend. It’s been a great relationship.”
Vessey said he sees a lot of his former board colleagues’ sons sitting on the board today. “It’s a very close group; we speak the same language,” he said. “And the integrity behind the produce people is just unmatched. I think we’re lucky to have, not only the family farm here but the Western Growers family. We have quite a family within Western Growers.”
The family extends beyond the Vessey name and Western Growers: Jack said it’s everyone at Vessey and Company Inc. “Anytime we drove around or went anywhere, my dad, he knew everyone’s name on the ranch. From knowing their kids’ names to what their kids were doing. It’s a family business. When we say family, it’s a team; it’s a family on the ranch. There’s a lot of people who’ve been here with us for more than 40 years, 30 years, generations of people working here at the ranch. And we couldn’t do what we do without those people. And it means a lot to us.”
Jack said they believe they have an inherent responsibility to take care of their ranch family. “They take care of us, and they take care of the ranch,” he said. “When I go to bed at night thinking the five-year plan, the ten-year plan, 50 years down the road, I want to be here not just for me and my family but for everyone else too. We have a responsibility not just to our own family but to everyone on the team.”
Vessey said he’s learned from those around him, and, early on, from doing all the work he could himself. “Everywhere you go, you meet new farmers,” Vessey said. “And you can always pick up something.”
He said, everywhere he went in his career, he learned something. And when he worked thinning crews early in his career from the Imperial Valley to Wilcox, Vessey said he learned hands-on lessons: from irrigation to labor, it’s all learned by doing the work.
As he drives his truck through the fields, Vessey talks about how they transitioned from lettuce to where they are today. “My father told me ‘You don’t always have to plant lettuce,’” he said. “Too many people fall into a comfort zone of planting the same crop. We have diversified so much now that we don’t fall in love with crops.”
And today, Vessy & Company Inc. has hit its stride. “You must pick a niche,” Vessey said. “And I think our niche now is if anybody wants anything grown in the desert, delivered to their plant, on a per-pound basis, that’s our niche. We can grow anything in the desert; we’ve proven that.”
Vessey is proud that Jack will continue to farm — and that his grandson, the fifth generation, will as well. He said his father Jackson had a saying: “I don’t know why these Hollywood people keep saying ‘There’s no business like show business.’ There’s really no business like the produce business.”
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