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.”
He took over West Coast operations for D’Arrigo Bros. Co. when his father, Stefano D’Arrigo, died in 1951 at age 57. Andy D’Arrigo was two years out of college. He’d grown up working in fields in summer or tagging along as far as Idaho on produce buying trips.
“My father was the first one to put broccoli in interstate commerce,” he said. “He started with the broccoli and prickly pears that Italians knew. He was in the pea and tomato business too. Fresh peas were the green item on the plate before they had frozen peas.”
His father and his uncle, Andrea D’Arrigo, had emigrated to the U.S. from Italy and served in the army during World War I. On July 27, 1920, they signed a partnership agreement on a single typescript page that marks D’Arrigo Bros. Co. origins as a Boston and California operation.
“Their idea was so simple,” Andy D’Arrigo said. “You produce it here in California — I don’t see it anywhere else — ship it to Boston and sell it there. You’ve got vertical integration all the way through.”
Andrea D’Arrigo, based in Boston, succeeded Stefano as president, and in turn Andy D’Arrigo succeeded Andrea. Shortly after World War II, the company expanded into New York.
“When (Stefano) died, he had celery in Lodi, broccoli in Castroville, lettuce in Salinas, grapes in Reedley, and broccoli and mustard greens in the Imperial Valley,” D’Arrigo said. “And in Eloy, Ariz., a mix of vegetables and everything from cotton to cattle.”
“I find a great deal of satisfaction in looking at where my father and uncle started,” he said. “That I’ve been able to take it from that point to this, and that my son John is taking it from this point forward, is deeply gratifying. It is a family business.”
Beyond business, D’Arrigo and his wife, Phyllis, made a mark in Salinas by supporting such organizations as Natividad Medical Center, whose patients include farmworkers, and Kinship Center, which backs adoptions. They were themselves adoptive parents.
“Andy is one of the more knowledgeable men in the business, and his integrity and character are beyond reproach,” said Don Smith, co-owner of Turlock Fruit Co. and a friend of 60 years. “Now you have marketing people or Farmer Joes, but he’s a well-rounded produce man who understands the farming as well as processing and distribution.”
“The D’Arrigos are real innovators and leaders,” said Dennis Donohue, Salinas mayor and president of Royal Rose LLC. “Everything about that group is first class — how they’ve integrated their community and marketing work, their product and people, and their generosity.”