American Farm Family: 4th-generation California melon operation’s legacy grown on generations of flavor

Meet this week’s Farm Family who have been growing generations of flavor in California’s California’s San Joaquin Valley.

Over a century ago, Steve Smith’s grandfather — affectionately known as James H. “Cantaloupe” Smith — laid the foundation for what would become the Turlock Fruit Company, today a fourth-generation family farming business in California’s San Joaquin Valley.

“I basically have three generations actively involved in the management of this company,” current steward Stephen Smith proudly declared. “My dad, who’s 92, is still active in the business. Myself, I’m third-generation, and my son is now active in the business. I think having three perspectives on business from three generations has been to our benefit, not a detriment.”

The Smith family relocated the majority of their farming operations from Turlock, California, to a plot near Firebaugh in the late 1980s, which is an area an hour south of the farm’s original location. The exceptional quality of the soil, which Stephen describes as “the best in the world for the kind of crops we grow,” is what influenced the family’s decision.

The Turlock Fruit Company specializes in growing seven varieties of melons, including cantaloupes, honeydews, and mixed melons. Additionally, they produce asparagus, cherries, tomatoes, and wheat for grain processing. However, they earned widespread recognition over the years for their sweet-tasting melons.

“We’re trying to differentiate ourselves by flavor,” Stephen said, emphasizing the importance of the region’s warm days and cool nights for producing the best melons. These conditions facilitate the efficient transfer of sugar from the plant to the melon, resulting in an unparalleled sweetness.

“Honeydews are a member of the cucumber family — so, without the right amount of sugar, a honeydew tastes like a cucumber. We grow for flavor,” added Steve Smith’s son-in-law, Neill Callis, another crucial figure in the family business.

In nearby fields, cantaloupes are hand-picked, as they are too delicate to be harvested with machinery. The Turlock Fruit Company packs about 10,000 boxes a day, which amounts to around 100,000 melons each day.

“They’re packed in the field because it minimizes any handling. explained Alec Smith, another family member. “It just goes right from the field into a box.”

The journey does not end in the field, though. The melons are transported to a processing facility and distributed nationwide. Honeydews even find their way to international markets in Japan, Korea, and Taiwan — a testament to the family’s dedication to delivering ripe, ready-to-eat fruit worldwide.

Despite the relentless challenges of farming, the Smith Family remains unwavering in their commitment to producing flavorful fruit.

“Nothing about this business is easy. One of the traits, I think, of any farmer that’s still doing specialty crops in California — you’ve got to be really stubborn.” Callis said, summing it up perfectly.

“It’s too much work and too much stress to do unless you have a passion for it,” Stephen echoed. “Fortunately for me, I’ve got a much younger son that has a passion, but he’s got energy. I’ve got the passion but not so much energy.”

“I think our ability to survive is just based on the foundation set by my great-grandfather and my grandfather,” said Alec rounding off the family’s dedication. “That drives us to try and do it better every year.”

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