In his own words: Onion farmer David Peri | NevadaAppeal.com
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In his own words: Onion farmer David Peri

The basics

Name/title: David Peri, President, Peri & Sons Farms

Number of years in this job: I started this company 35 years ago in 1979.

Years in this profession: My whole life. It’s all I’ve ever done. I graduated high school and went into farming full time.

Education: First graduating class from Reed High School in 1976

Last book read: There are dozens of industry-related publications I read on a regular basis. I’m especially interested in advancements in fertilizers, pesticides and organic farming.

Favorite flick: “Forrest Gump”

Spouse, kids or pets: My wife, Pam and I have been married 21 years. I have two children, Jessica, 31, who is our retail sales manager, and my son D.J., 19 who works in the farm’s production division operating equipment. We also have four dogs.

Northern Nevada Business Weekly: Tell us about Peri & Sons Farms and the duties of your position.

David Peri: Peri & Sons started when my cousin and I moved here from Lockwood in the fall of 1979 to prepare the ground for planting our first onion crop. Our first harvest was in 1980 of about 90 acres. We kept increasing acreage a little each season to what it is today. On the onion side, between Yerington and California, we are about a 4,200-acre operation. We ship around 350 million pounds of onions each year. In addition to the onion operation there is Nevada Fresh Pak, which we started in 2006. The first year Nevada Fresh Pak was about 100 acres of baby spinach, baby lettuces and vegetables. Today we grow about 2,300 to 2,500 acres of veggies with over 30 varieties from broccoli to eggplant. My job is to set the course for where we are headed — I have the vision of where our companies need to go. I have my second in command and many others at the wheel and I provide direction about where we are going and where I see the future. I’m very busy negotiating land deals and being involved in all of our capital expenditures. I have a great group of highly valued employees that take up the rear. We never have less than 400 on the payroll and at peak about 1,500.

NNBW: With the large growth of your farm, what are the main challenges you’ve had to overcome from an operational standpoint?

Peri: I don’t know if we are ever 100 percent ahead of it but we give it our utmost attention. With the veg farming there are so many pieces of the puzzle, such as staying up on current organic technologies, labor challenges and bringing in seasonal workers and housing them. When you are producing food you have a gigantic responsibility to make sure that the food is pure, clean and traceable. Growing food is an enormous social responsibility that shouldn’t be taken lightly. In addition to keeping our vegetables free of bacteria we have to be able to trace everything back all the way to the seed. We have a complex food safety department that has to be completely involved with all the audits that are necessary to achieve Global G.A.P. certification, which is an extremely rigorous audit. The Global G.A.P. audit allows us to sell anywhere in the world, and it ensures an everyday practice of specific hygiene. Food safety is at the forefront of this business and we are dedicated to the effort from top to bottom. Our food safety department has to co-mingle with sales, the growing side and the harvest side. They all have to be communicating in order to keep the wheel going around. The biggest challenge is keeping everyone flowing and working together as the company grows. My wife, Pam, started our food safety programs back in 1999 and has built the department along with our talented food safety and organic certification staff. The longevity of our food safety practice has contributed greatly to our success because strong food safety practices can’t be incorporated into a large company overnight.

NNBW: Is it harder to run your operation being based in Yerington than it would be if you were closer to a larger population base?

Peri: When you are rural, it is more difficult to find the sophisticated caliber of people you need in order to stay at the top end of the industry. Farming’s not just digging in the dirt. Farming is complicated, and it requires smart individuals that are educated, innovative and progressive. Our people have to be highly technical and very computer literate. They have to be comfortable with the changing technologies, working with data and working with others very closely. We spend a ton of time working on functioning as efficient teams. We are finding there are some exceptional young people in our area who are bilingual and have been using computers all their lives. They are unbelievably smart. As our company grows we plan to offer even more year-round positions even though our veg season is only 20-to 22-week’s long. We are always looking for motivated employees. Our existing team of people is talented, and we work very hard at making sure those we hire have a strong work ethic, exceptional drive and are able to see outside of the box.

NNBW: What are some of the other challenges of running a large business in a remote community?

Peri: Our entire product line has to go west to Salinas, Calif., to be washed and packed in various containers for distribution. We have an advantage with our organics because Nevada is very dry; we don’t have a lot of mildew pressure, which is a big problem with organic vegetable commodities. Because of our cold winters, we don’t have the insect pressure like they do down on the coast.

NNBW: The lack of water over the past few winters is a huge concern for someone in the agriculture business. What are some of the main impacts and concerns of the ongoing drought?

Peri: Water is a huge concern and requires constant attention. People just don’t understand the impact a lack of water has on our precious agricultural commodities. Here in Yerington we have phenomenal supplemental underground wells, so we are able to get through the droughts. For the veg we mostly use well water because there are no bacteria in it. We are thankful for the underground aquifers because they keep us in business, but the underground wells are an expensive investment and generate large power bills. In the Imperial Valley where we farm, the water comes off the Colorado River, so we are still okay. But I don’t think there is a farmer in the entire west that isn’t drastically praying for a winter and for the extreme drought to end in the West.

NNBW: Where do you farm in California?

Peri: We farm in Firebaugh just east of Interstate 5. This summer we have about 900 acres because of the water shortage, but typically we would like to be at about 1,200 acres. We also farm in Imperial Valley where we grow about 350 acres.

NNBW: Did you buy land in California to expand your operation?

Peri: We lease the ground there from different growers. The reason we went into California is to have product year-round for our retail business. In order to sell retail, you have to take care of their needs for a particular commodity 365 days a year.

NNBW: Is this the career you envisioned for yourself?

Peri: I wanted to quit school when I was in the sixth grade and do just what I am doing. I’m very passionate about farming and I still love going to work every single day after 40 years in this business.

NNBW: What do you like most about being a farmer?

Peri: Probably all the challenges. I love to see things grow and make things happen. It also feels good to feed the world. Farming is in your blood. You either are a farmer or you are not, because it’s a business that requires focus, attention and availability seven days a week.

NNBW: How has technology changed your operations over the last decade?

Peri: Technology in our business is huge. Collectively we spend a significant amount of time researching new technologies to make our company more efficient and more productive in the office, in the packing shed and in the field. We’ve placed an emphasis on IT with a full-time staff of four, which is unusual in agriculture. Our progressive attitude about technology allows our company to be more efficient not only administratively but also in the actual farming production area. For example, all of our equipment drives off of Global Positioning Satellite systems that enable us to plant exact populations off of satellite. Retailers, and now even consumers, are demanding greater tracking and traceability and food safety, and all of it requires state-of-the-art technology. Because of the packaging technology we put in place over the last few years, including bar code technology, we are in a position to meet their demands when others are not. Now technology follows us into the fields, where we use scanners to track labor data that is downloaded into our systems for more accurate payroll. Our harvest is complex and requires detailed accounting due to the fact that we are an H2A Guest worker employer.

NNBW: What’s on your dinner table at night?

Peri: Organic veggies. We eat a lot of organically grown vegetables.

NNBW: What was your first job?

Peri: This is all I have ever done. I was pulling weeds in the garden when I was four. I used to stay out of school when I was 11 or 12 years old and help plant and harvest by driving a tractor. I don’t ever remember not knowing how to drive.

NNBW: Have any advice for someone who wants to enter your profession?

Peri: If you have an interest in agriculture, there is quite a future in it for young people who are willing to work until the job is done. This often requires 60 to 80 hours a week during the growing season. When you are growing and harvesting crops, tomorrow is just another day whether it is your birthday or the Fourth of July. That is why most young people are not interested in ag. Not too many people want to be married to a seven-day-a-week job, but that is what it takes to be successful.

NNBW: How do you spend time away from work?

Peri: I like the mountains. I like to hike because I love nature. We have a lake house, and I try to spend quite a bit of time up there in the summer with our family and good friends.

NNBW: If you could live your life over again, what one thing would you change?

Peri: I would have started this company on my own without a partner. Other than that, I wouldn’t change much. I have enjoyed my career immensely.

NNBW: If you had enough money to retire right now, would you? Why or why not?

Peri: No. I’ll never retire. What would I do? I could retire right now but there’s no way; I would go crazy. When you love what you do it isn’t work.

NNBW: Why did you choose a career in northern Nevada? What do you like most about working/living here?

Peri: Before we started farming in Yerington we looked at the entire state of Nevada. We ended up here because there is phenomenal underground water the in this valley, so in short-water years we are able to sustain the crops with supplemental underground water. It was a good choice. We are not far from Reno, Carson City or Lake Tahoe, and we have access to trucks, parts and equipment. After looking at the entire state, this was the best spot to land in.

To suggest a candidate for the weekly question and answer column contact reporter Rob Sabo at rsabo@nnbw.biz.