People go out of business every day. It could be due to inexperience, mismanagement, or economic factors, but they close their doors and quit. My reasons for quitting are a little different and if you have a few minutes, I’d like to tell you my story. My name is Tonetta Simone Gladwin and I am the third and final generation Fig farmer in Merced, California. I owned a business named Passion Fruit Farms and I was often referred to as the Figlady.
The Figlady is our brand name, and we have shipped figs all over the world, and we are very proud of the brand we developed from the ground up. The Figlady Brand could be found in the largest supermarket retailers in Canada, and we were proud to ship our figs in stores from Vancouver to Montreal. We have shipped all over the United States, primarily to the East Coast and even regularly flew our figs to Japan.
We farmed all four types of figs, Black Mission, Kadota, Brown Turkey and Calimyrna Figs. We sold them both fresh and dried and did both well. My main responsibility was to sell in the morning, and as many farmers could attest, that started very early. By 10am the selling was done and I’d move to the packing shed. 30 to 40 women packing after over 200 people in the orchard had picked them earlier in the morning. One of the greatest things about farming is that the figs did not care if it was a ten-hour day, if it was a holiday or even a Sunday. When the figs came, we worked and we loved it, even when we hated working 23 days straight.
I adored being the Figlady. It was in my blood. It was who I committed to be in good times and in bad. I worked hard for 15 years to build this business and build a name for myself in a male dominated industry. 10 years before that I learned everything I knew know from my father, Maurio Simone who also farmed figs among other fruits and vegetables. I learned resilience, versatility, and how to adapt day to day with one never being just like the one before it. After a lot of blood, sweat and tears over the years, I had developed something I was proud of. A picture of my grandpa who came over from Italy hangs on my wall in my office. I would often tell him the challenges of Fresh Market Produce and what the fig business turned out to be. Even though I never got the chance to meet him, he sure did have an influenced on the woman I have become.
Although I didn’t farm my grandfather’s or father’s ground, I was given a work ethic like only those in agricuture could understand. Hard work was expected. You never asked someone to do a job you hadn’t done yourself. You werent finished until the job was done, no matter how long it took. Being a woman was never an excuse I could use. Driving tractor or a forklift, prunning trees, picking and packing were all on my list of duties. Whether I was wearing a skirt or not, I kept up with the men, and knew to be a good boss you had to be a better leader.
Being the Figlady was were I spent my summers, my weekends, my holidays and I loved it. I was lucky enough to find a husband, Blair Gladwin, who shared the same work ethic as I did. Friends and family thought we were crazy when we bought our own first fig orchard. We called our company Passion Fruit Farms because it was our shared passion to bring fresh and dried figs to the market, plus we didn’t think Crazy Fruit Farms was a good buisness name.
We have raised two beautiful daughters who also committed their weekends, holidays, and after school hours working on the farm. They worked their way up just like I did when I was their age. From making boxes to running the payroll office, what we were doing was truly a family affair. On Mondays, I would watch my daughters pass out payroll to over 200 men and women who would line my driveway. I was proud to know the people that would return year after year to help me bring in the crop. I would shake their hands in gratitude and thank them every year. I knew the money they made was staying local, buying groceries and clothes for their families. Just as much as this business was made up of my family, it made up so many of thiers too. Men and women would meet and get married, raise their own families in this culture, and when their kids came of age they would start their very first job making boxes working alongside their parents. Sounds great doesn’t it? It really was. I was so lucky to do what I did everyday, and I never took what I did for granted.
I loved walking the orchards at night, thanking the trees for their fruit and for taking care of me and my family. Other farmers may be able to understand that walking alone among the trees is kind of like being in church. Peaceful, humbling and quiet. I took good care of the land and it took good care of me. People would say to me all the time what a beautiful fig orchard I had, and I had always agreed. I was proud of the farmer I was.
Farmers are of a different breed because you will almost never hear us boast about our triumphs, and especially never bend your ear about our misfortunes. That’s why seeing it written down in black and white makes it seem so final, so real. So how did it all go south you ask? What could of happened? It was a combination of hardhsips that I just couldn’t overcome. Recently, it has been the continuous rise of minimum wage, one year it was the lack of employees, another it was the weather being too hot, or early rain that caused us to have a shorter season. The underwhelming desire for local fruit from both customers and distributors really hit us hard. But the straw that broke the camel’s back is our lack of water. Water is what finally hit us hard enough to put us out of buisness. The California Drought of 2013 to 2015 has so highly impacted my ability to farm and the condition of my trees that I can no longer make any money and am now being forced to sell my ranches.
Water. It all came down to water. I know many people drive the same highways as I do and see all the new planting of trees and green front lawns and say, “What drought?” “Farmers look fine to me.” Yet, I invite you to come to my orchard and really see what drought looks like and this is why I want to share my story. To educate and enlighten you on what is happening to not only my family, but soon so many others. A story that I don’t think is being told.
I do not have a well and figs do not make the profit margins as many nut trees to afford a well. It is truely economically unfeasable. In 2013 and 2014 we received limited water deliveries but continued to do our best even with a lower crop production. Less water means less figs on the trees making it diffuclt to keep afloat. In 2015 our Merced Irrigation District allocated farmers zero percent water.
No water means no fruit, it’s as simple as that. In 2013 we had a hard freeze on dry ground, which killed the branches resulting in 60% production of normal crop in 2014. In 2015 we started the season with a combination of dead wood, no new growth and no water, which means dying trees. Production this year is at 10% of a normal crop. The bank, my mortgage company and many vendors are now knocking at the door because only a farmer would put the house they raise their family in as collateral to do business.
Now with tears in my eyes, I walk the orchards that I have loved and apologize to them for their suffering. These are no longer trees I am proud of, and like watching my children suffer it breaks my heart to watch my trees that have taken such good care of me suffer and all I can do is watch it happen. Although I cannot make it rain or change laws of water policy I still feel like it was my responsibility to take care of them. I have failed my trees, my family, and my employees. With a heavy heart, I know it’s time to sell. It will take years to bring the trees back, and years I do not have.
I know people go out of business every day, but to a farmer it is like the death of an old friend. I tell my story not to have anyone feel sorry for me, but to educate people on how hard we farmers work to bring fruit and vegetables to their table. We do this job because we love it and it is in our blood. Even when it is not my fault to fail, who in the end responsibility was it? Mine.