SALINAS, Calif. — Eighty years or so after he first saw cactus pears readied for market in a San Jose packing shed, Andy D’Arrigo is overseeing their production and sales for D’Arrigo Bros. Co. of California.
You’d be hard put to lure the chairman of the board, 88, away from his daily rounds at the company’s Salinas offices.
“Even now I’m trying like hell to get down to a 30-hour week and I don’t make it,” he said. “I like to work, and I like this business. I’m not one to sit at home and watch ‘Oprah.’”
To be sure, cactus pears and nopalitos are niche items in the stable of D’Arrigo Bros. products bearing his childhood likeness on the Andy Boy label. The company may be best known for broccoli, but over the decades it — and he — had a hand in endless commodities, including fruit.
A newcomer to the list is wine grapes, a growth industry in Monterey County. D’Arrigo Bros. had its first harvestable crop last year. D’Arrigo developed that program, and his son John D’Arrigo, who succeeded him as company president in 1992, oversees it. The grapes are grown in the Salinas Valley. Andy D’Arrigo also retained some zinfandel acreage in Lodi.
The cactus pears keep the company close to its immigrant roots, although today’s market is shaped more by Mexican than European influences.
“It was a large item when I was a kid in San Jose,” D’Arrigo said. “I remember loading railcars with it. Most people who settled on the East Coast were European — Italian, Spanish or whatever — and they knew what a cactus pear is because it’s native to their country.”
West Coast operations for D’Arrigo Bros. were based in San Jose then. In a time before urban sprawl, agriculture was still king there.
“I can remember groves of cactus,” D’Arrigo said. “You needed a 12-foot ladder to harvest it. Times have changed. You don’t use a ladder, you have to keep the plants down. There’s no book on the farming practices. It’s all by trial and error, and we’ve had that experience.”
Today the cactus, like so much else, is grown in the Salinas Valley. The pears compete in U.S. markets against lower-cost imports from Mexico, but D’Arrigo believes he can hold his ground.
“The only way you can exist is on a limited amount and when people are willing to pay for value and a better product consistently,” he said. “It can grow slowly, but it’s evolution not revolution.”