Perhaps there is no purer example of the true small business than the family farm. After all, agriculture was often the basic economic unit in nearly every human society throughout history, and therefore a key ingredient for survival among many cultures in the world. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that the agricultural sector of the United States contributes approximately $130 billion to the U.S. economy and employs roughly 14 percent of our total workforce. But perhaps even more important than the national economic impact farmers make on our society is the role they play in the local community. Family farmers contribute to the local economy, they are often active in civic life, and provide a rare view into the past, which is an important element of any community. Thomas Jefferson in 1785 wrote about the family farmer in a letter to a friend: “They are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interest by the most lasting bonds".
Echoing this sentiment is Dennis Peretti, owner of Gopher Glen Apple Farm in San Luis Obispo, a fully functioning apple farm set in the back hills of California’s Central Coast. Managing the operations his father started a half century ago, Dennis feels proud of his 100-acre operation that produces more than 100,000 pounds of apples, employs local agriculture students and is the backbone to a growing gift shop and bakery that attracts thousands of tourists a year.
Starting the Business
How did you start your business?
I was born into it. My father was born in Templeton, but later moved here with my mom after the War. He graduated from Cal Poly in agriculture, and back then the land was affordable. So he and my mom bought an old orchard near the ocean. He saw right away that the coastal climate would be good for apples. The whole family worked here. I remember picking apples since I was smaller than this counter. After my dad died, my brothers and I took over the farm. I’m the real farmer, the other two are more the business end. But we make it work.
Who was your first customer?
I have no idea. I do know that one of our earliest customers was the Madonna Inn. They always make a big deal out of the holidays and would buy almost half of our apples.
Running the Business
How did you learn to run your business?
Well I’ve lived my whole life here. Everything we did after school and during the summer revolved around the farm. I guess you could say I never knew anything else.
What’s the biggest mistake you made in your first year?
We made a lot of mistakes over the years. One thing a lot of people don’t know about growing apples is that they require a lot of maintenance. You don’t just plant and pick. I remember one year we had a big problem with deer’s. They ate almost a whole acre of young trees. I tried to keep them out with all kinds of stupid ideas. I even tied soap to the fencing, but that was a mistake. Another mistake I made early on was hiring a manager with a drinking problem. He needed my help, so I hired him. He knew apples and he was real smart, but once he found a bottle he would change. One day I woke up in the morning and he took my wallet, some of the store’s money and even drove off with my truck. He spent five year in prison for that, but I still think of it as my fault.
What’s the smartest thing you did in your first year?
The smartest thing we ever did was started by my dad. He started hiring the students from the school from which he graduated — Cal Poly. These kids are the future of farming; I mean really smart. They use our orchards for experimenting. Each year they have eight or nine varieties that have never been tried ever before. We are now producing a new crop that we bred that is a cross between a Burgundy and Gala. So we are really kind of famous for having some very unusual varieties. A lot of these kids will be going on to get their PhDs. They’re helping us and we’re helping them.
The other thing we did was open a gift shop and bakery. The store contributes more than half of the revenue for the farm. That was my brother’s idea, and it’s been a good one.
What’s the most rewarding thing about running your own business?
I’m a lot like my dad was. I am a farmer at heart. The core of my body is connected to the earth. I feel extremely proud about the contribution we make to the university and to the entire county. So I feel like we are a big contributor to the bigger picture. I know I’m just an apple farmer, but I am also a positive member of this community. Plus I get to work in a beautiful place. No fluorescent lighting!
What’s the most difficult thing about running your own business?
My brother’s and I did a calculation recently. We compared what my father was paying per acre to produce and what we’re paying now. Our costs of increased more than 70 percent over the past 20 years. Pesticides, soil, taxes and insurance, and machine costs. Everything is really expensive. I have friends in Washington, and it’s amazing how much more it costs to run a farm in California than in other states.
What’s the most surprising thing about running your own business?
That we’re still here. Our profit margins continue to shrink. It’s really hard to make a family farm pencil. I think that we’ve done well, but like I said it hasn’t been an easy run. Some years, we don’t produce the yield we need to make the numbers work. It’s an up and down thing. But we’re still here, after 50 years.
What business owner or entrepreneur do you admire most? Who is your role model?
Well, a lot of people around here would say the same thing: Alex Madonna. He started a road construction company when he was still in high school. He went on to become one of the most prominent developers in three counties. I mean, he and Phyllis (his wife) designed the Madonna Inn one night on the back of a napkin. That was vision.
What I’ve Learned
If you could go back to when you were starting your business, what advice would you give yourself?
Try to think big. Sometime I get too focused on the past and am reluctant to embrace change. This is OK but you should really stretch when you’re young. Take advantage of opportunities and don’t be afraid.
What do you wish you had known before you had started your business?
Just about everything. I learned the apple business from my father, and he was a really smart man. But I never learned things like computers and marketing, or business thinking. I got it through osmosis.
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About the Author — Vincent Aviani has been a professional observer of life for nearly 30 years. Starting out his career as a reporter, and then as a community banking communications officer and public relations executive, Vincent has spent his career listening to personal stories and conveying the histories and wisdom within each story to his receptive audience. For the past four years, he has been running his own small business as a professional communications consultant and storyteller.