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Fonseca Farms: Pumpkins & more

Farming family now bringing up fourth-generation of farmers

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Fonseca Farms: Pumpkins & more

Kathy Fonseca Rich, with pet pooch Louie, is flanked by nephews Michael, left, and Richard Fonseca at the family Fonseca Farms business on South Airport Way in Manteca.

ROSE ALBANO RISSO/The Bulletin


POSTED October 3, 2012 7:39 p.m.

The cousins are hard at work, oblivious to the drone of zipping front loaders and forklifts around them. Hands and fingers fly in blurrying speed, folding the corners of the thick corrugated cards that would be the lids of the giant boxes where dozens of the colorful gourds are packed and then loaded into waiting delivery trucks.

The cousins are Kody and Dylan, both 11 years old, and Zach and Blake, both age 9. They are the fourth-generation farmers-in-training of Fonseca Farms, the company that is owned and operated by brothers Richard and Michael Fonseca, and their aunt Kathy Rich and her husband Freddie. Kody and Zach are the sons of Richard and his wife Joanna. Dylan and Blake are the sons of Michael and his wife, Deanna.

The brothers, along with their aunt and uncle are carrying on a business that was started by Albert Fonseca Sr. in 1946.

Albert Fonseca Sr. was at one time known as the “Watermelon King.” But these days, Fonseca Farms are raising pumpkins, butternut and banana squash, tomatoes, almonds, and alfalfa.

“That’s about it for now,” said Kathy Rich. They don’t raise watermelons anymore because it’s “labor intensive, it’s so outrageously expensive” to grow, she said.

And if you purchased, or will purchase, a pumpkin either for home décor, for carving jack-‘o-lanterns, or for baking, at your neighborhood grocery store, chances are that bright orange gourd came from Fonseca Farms even though it’s loaded in a gigantic Perry & Sons box. Safeway, Raley’s, Save Mart, Winco, Von’s, Home Depot, Ralph’s, CVS, Albertson’s, and Food-4-Less are some of the places where the pumpkins are sold. Perry & Sons today supply the popular gourd product all over California, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, and some in Oregon and Hawaii, among other places.

The Fonsecas farm about 1,500 acres. This year, pumpkins were grown on about 250 acres.

Fonseca Farms and Perry & Sons’ partnership and friendship go a long way back to the days when George Perry Sr. (dubbed at one time “The Pumpkin King” by People Magazine) and the late Albert Fonseca Sr. (the Watermelon King) were young farmers as well as fast friends. That business relationship and friendship has survived the test of time. In fact, during the first of two interviews conducted last week with the Fonsecas at the Fonseca Farms loading field on South Airport Way, Richard and Michael said, “Art (Perry, George’s oldest son) was just here this morning.”

The Fonsecas can’t say enough good words about the Perry family.

“We’ve been doing business with Perry & Sons for over 50 years. We’re like family, but we do business together. They’re so sweet,” Kathy Rich said as she coddled a clearly pampered pooch, Louie, which also gets into the farming action sometimes.

“He goes and rides in the tractor with my husband, too,” Kathy, who is also a massage therapist who has her business in Ripon, said of her furry friend.

Kathy said her nephews are teaching their sons the rudiments of the family farming business the way her late father did with her own nephews. “My dad taught them while they were growing up,” she said.

This was when Albert Fonseca Sr. and his wife lived on McMullin Road, not far from the Fonseca Farms’ packing shed and loading hub on South Airport Way just north of West Ripon Road.

The brothers learned farming “pretty much hands-on. We’ve been in the fields since we were babies, just riding around with grandpa, listening and seeing how the (farming) operation works. I started driving a tractor at 9 years old. That’s exactly what the kids are doing right now. They’re here every day when they’re out of school,” said Michael who is about two years Richard’s junior. Both are graduates of Manteca High, and the California State University, Fresno where Richard received a bachelor’s degree in agriculture, and Michael in agri-business.

The brothers say they are raising the family’s fourth generation of farmers who are also showing, even at a young age, intense interest in farming. “They choose to be here, learning good values and good work  ethics,” Michael said.

“We like to keep the business and keep the family (farming) tradition,” he added.

“The little boys are our future farmers,” Kathy said as she watched her nephews’ young sons get busy helping their fathers and work crews doing various tasks.

Richard’s older son Kody, just like his father, learned to drive the forklift when he was 7 years old. As he zipped through the loading area at Fonseca Farms with a bright yellow tractor, his 9-year-old cousin Blake drove his own vehicle a bit more cautiously and slowly under the eagle eye of his father, Michael. At one point, Blake had a problem restarting his machine. Kody immediately came over, asked what’s going on, and after listening to Blake’s explanation, went and started the machine which purred into action at once. After their exchange of “thanks” and “you’re welcome” with a wave of a hand, the young cousins who acted like old-time farmers, went back to what they were doing – loading up the pallets for the boxes of pumpkins.

The Fonsecas – Richard, Michael and their uncle Freddie – work side by side and just as hard as their crew members which number about 60 this pumpkin season. Actually, they work even harder and longer, their aunt pointed out.

“The crews or workers are out working six days a week (Monday to Saturday). Family members work seven days a week,” doing things that they don’t have the time to do during the week such as inspecting the fields for picking, organizing the loading area, doing the necessary clean-up, among others, Kathy explained.

They are out in the fields as early as 6 o’clock in the morning, sometimes 4 a.m. when it’s a particularly busy day, and don’t wrap up until 10 p.m.

The norm is 14- to 15-hour days, “from dark to dark, as much as the sun allows us,” Michael said. That schedule will be the norm through the end of October when the pumpkin picking is over. They started the first week of September.

“We like to work outside and be outside,” is how Richard explained why he does not mind putting in those long hours.

It appears that the coming fourth-generation of Fonseca Farmers are learning not just hands-on but by simply listening and watching their fathers and uncle Freddie at work.

“I just like it. I come here to work on weekends, and during the summer, I work, too,” said Richard’s older son Kody, 11.

He wants to be a farmer like his dad someday, he said.

“That’s what I’m planning. It’s fun and it’s something to do when you’re bored. There are difficult challenges, but sometimes they’re not hard,” said Kody who is busy with Boy Scout activities when he is not out helping at the family farm. His cousins, Blake and Zach play baseball.

He is most proud of one particular feat he did when he was four years younger.

“I was 7 when I started (operating the front loader). My mom (Joanna, his stepmom) has a video of me when I was loading up my first truck,” he said with a big smile.

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