When Jack Vessey was a teen growing up in the Holtville area, watching his father run the family’s generational farm, he knew what he wanted to do – become a farmer like his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather.
There were times when his father, the late Jon Vessey, would tell him that he could choose any career he wanted, and that the only reason to become a farmer would be if he truly had a passion for it. The elder Vessey told his son becoming a farmer would not be an easy path.
For Jack, there was never a question. He was going to be a fourth-generation farmer.
Today, he serves as president of the family’s farm, Vessey & Co., which operates as a produce company based in the Imperial Valley, near Holtville.
This year, the company is celebrating its centennial, a unique accomplishment even in the Imperial Valley where generational farming families mark every corner of the Valley and continue to drive the success of the region’s agricultural economy.
The significance of this milestone means a great deal to Jack to honor the efforts of those who came before him and for the ongoing effort of everyone who today works as part of Vessey & Co to ensure the operation succeeds, even during challenging times.
“The legacy of all the hard work it took to build this up and pass it down from one generation to the next is meaningful,” said Jack, 48, who resides in rural Holtville with his wife and three children, the fifth generation of the family in the Valley.
Family friend and farmer Ed McGrew of El Centro said it is unique to see a company reach a hundred-year milestone, and he praised the Vessey family for their accomplishment, adding they are part of the pioneering history of the Valley.
“They have succeeded through various hardships through the years,” McGrew said, adding, “the Valley is one of the last pioneering places to have been established and the Vesseys have been a part of it.”
Today, Vessey & Co. grows nearly 40 different kinds of vegetables across 10,000 acres, all within the Holtville area, with the company’s exports serving the country. The company operates as a joint venture, focusing on the growing and marketing side of farming, though it does pack and ship its own red and green cabbage. For its other crops, it partners with others to handle the packing and shipping.
For Jack, driving across his fields is a reminder of the earlier generations who led the way for the company to become what it is today.
It began with his great grandparents, Elton and Maude Vessey, who moved from the Midwest to Los Angeles prior to 1923 and started a small produce wholesale company in the downtown area until Elton decided he wanted to start growing his own crops.
That led Elton and his wife to move to the Imperial Valley in 1923 where they began to grow lettuce and created what would be Vessey & Co. By the 1930s, they expanded the operation to include Hollister and the Salinas Valley. Under Elton, the company gained recognition within the lettuce industry for its innovative techniques to both grow and rapidly transport crops.
Their son, Jackson Vessey, eventually took over the operation, and continued to expand the company. Under his leadership, lettuce harvesting and packing extended to six different areas of California, including the Imperial Valley. Jackson was also an early pioneer in the fresh garlic industry, with garlic packing operations in Hollister, San Juan Bautista, and El Centro, as well as in Queretaro and Mexicali Valley, Mexico.
Jackson had two sons, Phillip and Jon. As the older son, Philip was to take over the Imperial Valley operation. However, he died in a traffic accident in the Valley in 1965. That meant the Valley operation fell to Jackson’s younger son, Jon, who would go on to expand the family company to grow 25 different crops. Jon also had the company focus on its efforts as a grower, shifting most of the packing and shipping duties to partners.
Jack Vessey remembers how hard his father worked and the constant challenges and worries his father faced.
“I remember when I was a child and there were thunderstorms, and I would go to my parents’ bed when I was scared. My mother was there, but my father would be outside watching over the ranch, hoping the storm didn’t hit his fields.”
He also remembers the good times he spent in the fields with his father.
“Certain memories always pop into my mind,” he said. “The way I learned to throw a ball was by playing catch with a head of lettuce in the fields with my father.
As Jack grew into a teen, despite his father’s conversations about choosing any career he wanted, he decided he wanted to continue farming. He attended California State Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo to study agricultural business and eventually returned home to join the family company.
“I embrace the challenges that he had,” Jack said, referencing such issues as transporting the harvested crops, facing the extreme weather, and fluctuating costs that made farming difficult then and still today. “I like those challenges. Every day is different. Every challenge is different.”
In 2010, the future of the farming operation shifted. The entire operation moved to the Imperial Valley, which meant no longer growing outside the Valley. As the focus shifted, the family continued to expand the variety of vegetable crops.
Eventually, the management of Vessey & Co. transitioned to Jack shortly before his father’s passing in 2014. Over the years since then, he’s taken everything he learned from his father and built on those lessons.
“Making a crop isn’t easy, and he always cared about the people on the ranch who made it possible day after day to grow the best crops we could,” Jack said, adding, that just like his father, he cares deeply about those who work as part of the company. “There’s a lot of people depending on us to survive and have a good life. I feel a big responsibility for that.”
With that in mind, and with shifting markets, Jack runs the company today a little differently than his father.
“We’ve really gotten a lot more conservative in what we do,” he said. “Almost everything we grow has a home (a buyer). We just have to make sure we do a good job of growing it. The risk and reward is so low now in farming that you cannot go out and gamble the way they used to.” Meaning, in the past it was possible to grow a crop and then find a market for it. “They would cross their fingers and hope someone wanted it, so the way we do things now is a monumental shift.”
While Jack may operate the company differently, what hasn’t changed from one generation to the next is the sense of leadership, not only in guiding the company, but serving as a leader in the farming community.
Jack is a third-generation board member on the Western Growers Association, an advocacy organization founded in 1926 to support produce growers in California, Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico. He said it means a great deal to him to serve on the same board as his father and grandfather. Jack has also served as president of the Imperial Valley Vegetable Growers Association and continues to serve on that board. He said the importance of serving was engrained in him by his father.
“It was watching him do what he did,” Jack said. “He’d always been in leadership roles. He never put his head in the sand when it came to working on tough issues. He was always one to work with his fellow growers.”
Jack recalled one conversation with his father that meant a lot to him. For a school project, he once asked his father whom he most admired. His father answered, Cesar Chavez, who as the leader of the United Farm Workers, led the lettuce strike of 1979 against lettuce growers in the Valley. Jack said his father told him that even though they were on different sides of the labor issue, they could come together and talk.
“That conversation still stands out to me today as the kind of man my father was,” Jack said, pointing out that he learned from his father the importance of coming together to resolve issues.
As Vessey & Co. celebrates its centennial, Jack said he looks forward to the future of the company and agriculture in the Valley, but at the same time he knows tough issues lie ahead, particularly as the Colorado River, the sole source of the Valley’s water supply, faces the uncertainty caused by drought.
He said it is important for everyone outside the Valley to know “we are using every drop wisely and that we are using every drop to feed the nation.”
As for the fifth generation of the family, they already are showing interest in the farm. Just as Jack worked with his father in his youth, Jack’s son, Blaze, 17, a high school senior, spends his free time driving a tractor and water truck on the farm. Jack’s daughters, Hazel, 12, and Fiona, 10, look forward to weekend drives with their father to survey the fields.
However, Jack said, just like his father had conversations with him about choosing any career he wants, so has Jack, letting his children know they can do whatever they want with their lives as long as they have a passion for it.