Fifth Generation Delta-Pear Farmer Doug Hemly
When Doug Hemly, a Delta farmer, bends down to grab a handful of soil from his farmland he thinks about his family’s legacy. Four generations came before him — each leaving an imprint on the family farm. With this history in mind, Doug’s philosophy is to farm for the future.
“I’m the fifth generation on this piece of dirt,” Doug said. “I’d like to leave things the way I found it.”
Doug and his wife, Cathy, own Greene and Hemly, Inc. They are a pear, apple and kiwi grower-packer-shipper with operations located along the northern most islands of the Sacramento Delta in Courtland, CA.
Their life appears picturesque — farming fruit orchards along the banks of the Sacramento Delta; but there is a tremendous amount of responsibility, most of which is self-inflicted that comes with taking care of the land. Doug and Cathy couldn’t be more thoughtful in the balanced approach they use in farming. But there is another piece of reality that serves as a necessary balance to any business — financial viability and in this case what is necessary to keep dozens of families employed, as well as their own family.
Their children, Matthew Hemly and Virginia Hemly Chhabra, are part of the daily operations at Greene and Hemly. Their children carry the title as “sixth generation farmers.” Matthew’s wife, Sarah Hemly, is also part of the business.
“So, the concept that it’s ours, is easily dismissed because we are the present stewards, which in this case has been continued with family involvement. We are all just passing through,” Doug said.
The company’s name comes from Doug’s parents’ namesakes. He grew up where they farm today, along one of the world’s most unique waterways.
Doug has a lifetime of knowledge gained from a front-row-seat along the Delta. The water delivery system also serves to provide observers with a transparent view of the state’s water affairs. Whether it’s melting temperatures in the Sierra Nevada mountains or severe weather upstream.
“So, we have a sense of history and an understanding of a lot of the different faces of nature because when you are on the main drainage system of Northern California you understand the immediate weather events and the time of release capsule of the snow melt,” Doug said.
Doug’s great-great grandfather witnessed the migration of gold-hungry travelers heading to Sacramento.
“In California, the Delta is one of the older, more developed areas in the state because when the gold rush was in full swing, the avenue to the gold fields from around the world was through San Francisco then up the Sacramento River to the gold fields,” Doug said.
More than half of the state’s water flows through the Delta. Living along the Delta, Doug is keenly aware of the state’s environmental conditions which further solidifies his philosophy to tread lightly on the land.
“Again, it goes back to stewardship and how the land was adapted. How we can work to harmonize between what was and what is, and how we can enhance what is and reflect back on what was,” Doug said.
This is a question that Doug answers in action.
In the world of farming, the rules of the farm are based on trial and error. Past experiences serve as the starting point to make decisions, which is a highly subjective process.
“I don’t know what ‘standard’ is,” Doug said and explained that his actions are governed by a sense of acting in the best interest of the land and people.
It’s the kind of things one learns from a parent.
For Doug, it was his father. He vividly remembers a time as a boy when his dad shared a story around the dinner table that affected his perspective.
“That was a tangible point when I started thinking about — not knowing the word ‘environment’ — and wanting to do the right thing and to understand what you are doing. We come to today, and we have done a better job defining these — buzz words like sustainability, organic and all the verbiage in between,” Doug said.
He said it’s a simple concept that focuses on working with the land to complement it, not against it.
“I think we are getting better, he said. “I see that as our task. Is it the right thing to do, yes, on just about every level. It works for the environment, employees and economic.”
Doug never planned to making a living as a farmer.
He shared the way it happened. Doug was driving back home to Sacramento at the end of his freshman year of college in Southern California and he decided to take the “long way home.”
Instead of trekking across the LA Basin, Doug plotted a detour through the Mojave Desert to Tehachapi and down to Bakersfield, then up the San Joaquin Valley.
He remembers feeling a sense of adventure driving across the high desert — the radio was turned up and car windows were rolled down.
“I’m driving through the sagebrush out there, and all of the sudden, wham, the smell of fresh-mowed-alfalfa comes through the window. The aroma was there and all of the heart strings got tugged, as I thought ‘I miss this,'” Doug said referring to the familiar smell of the rural ag landscape.
In that moment, his mindset about farming changed.
“That was the ‘wow’ moment that has never left me,” Doug said. “I don’t know what would have happened if I didn’t (take that route). For me, you never see the fork in the road, it’s all in the rear-view mirror.”
Within 18 months, he asked his dad about joining the family business.
Doug’s two children share their father’s sentiment about career aspirations in agriculture.
“One of the things of my children and I joke about is that when all three of us got out of high school, farming wasn’t in the plan,” he said.
Both Matthew and Virginia made purposeful decisions to join the business.
Doug has been farming more than 50 years. He credits the health of the business to the people he works alongside.
“Our employees have a sense of buy-in. We are all links in the chain to get things done. Just like we need to irrigate at harvest the crop we are growing, we need to nurture the internal environment here,,” Doug said.
He feels that employees are integral to the success or failure of a farm.
“We all get out paycheck from what we grow, so having them understand their role in the process is important,” he said.
Greene and Hemly’s year-round employees are provided with housing which is about two dozen homes. Keeping the homes well-maintained is a high priority.
“If there is a problem, then we fix it,” Doug said. “My wife and I, our philosophy, and our family philosophy, is that we won’t have anybody live in housing that we wouldn’t be living in. It’s warm, it’s safe, it’s well-designed and it’s kept up. And I think I live up to that.”
He wants his employees to have a good work environment.
“This seems to be consistent with how I was raised. And the trick is to manage everything so that you can afford to do it,” Doug said.
Despite the best intentions, the reality is that the business depends on the financial viability of getting a labor-intensive crop to market.
California businesses are faced with recalibrating their economic viability with increased costs triggered by legislative changes.
Greene and Hemly, and the entire farming community, are subject to a series of minimum wage increases that started January 1, 2017 from $9 to $10.50 an hour. Next January, the minimum wage will go up to $11 and then increase a $1 per hour over the next four years to reach $15 per hour. In agriculture, the increased labor costs will be exasperated by the removal of field-level overtime provisions that will take affect in 2018.
These changes mean it will cost more money to get Greene and Hemly’s pears, apples and kiwi to market.
Business owners, like Doug, must figure out how to cut expenses and/or increase income.
These are difficult problems to solve, and it’s yet-to-be-seen how individual ag employers are going to deal with the recent changes.
Doug said that questions are unanswered until “you get the final rulings of how it is going to be measured. The concern I have is for these employees.”
There is a certain point with labor costs when equipment becomes a viable option. The timeline isn’t clear but you have a pool of people whose skills may not be needed any longer.
Doug saw an example of technology replacing people.
“I recently was in an airport where the McDonald’s had a row of kiosks for ordering, so there was only one person at the counter calling out the number and handing the food to the customer,” Doug said.
He estimated the automated kiosks eliminated jobs for three to four people.
“That is the first step of switching labor for technology as robotics come through and as optics get better. A massive amount of jobs will switch from human to machine. I think we are going a little too quickly. We don’t have fall back positions,” Doug said.
He explains how people – employees – create a community. In the Delta, Doug described the community as creating a strong sense of place that is socially and economically integrated.
Doug is worried about how automation will affect his community.
“I am concerned – that what we are driving is people versus technology,” Doug said. “The social engineers always talk about disruption as temporary and at the end of the day this will be a better deal. It’s not a better deal for those who live it.”
Those within a community whose jobs are replaced by mechanization will have a far different experience than those unaffected by the change.
“It’s like the people who got their house flooded for unique reason and the people that didn’t get their house flooded say, that’s interesting. Well, it might be interesting to the non-participant, but to the participant, it is a disaster,” Doug said.
Farmers feel economic ramifications of increased labor costs, but the greater concern are the social implications that are expected to follow with automation within the ag sector.
“That concept of broad brush strokes doesn’t deal with the individual and I am concerned about that,” Doug said.
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