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Farmers who have been growing strawberries in northern Santa Barbara County for more than 35 years were honored Friday for their contributions to the crop that ranks second in value among all the county’s agricultural products.

The Strawberry Sector awards were presented as the climax to the EconAlliance “Growing Possibilities” Agricultural Forum at the Santa Maria Fairpark.

“We’re recognizing the people who’ve been doing this for 35 years,” said Steve Pepe, president of the EconAlliance board. “We’re recognizing the people who got us here.”

A company, an individual and five families were honored with plaques presented by Lorena Chavez, honorary chairwoman of the 2018 Ag Forum, county supervisors Joan Hartmann and Steve Lavagnino, and George Adam, co-leader of the EconAlliance Ag Team.

The awards and recipients were:

Special Recognition Award — William “Bill” Moncovich of California Giant Berry Farms;

Extraordinary Achievement Award — Daren Gee of DB Specialty Farms and Darensberries;

Strawberry Sector Pioneer Family Awards —Alton Allen family, Luis Chavez family, Miguel Chavez family, Abel Maldonado Sr. family and Sheehy family.

California Giant Berry Farms

Bill Moncovich is president and chief executive officer of the family-owned company headquartered for more than 45 years in Watsonville that operates a cooling facility on Stowell Road in Santa Maria.

In addition to strawberries the company grows, ships and packs blueberries, blackberries and raspberries, and the Valley contributes a significant amount of the more than 22 million trays of berries California Giant ships each year.

Both Moncovich and the company are committed to supporting children’s health and fitness, and in 2015 he formed the California Giant Foundation to provide financial support to battling childhood cancer, obesity and hunger.

Daren Gee

The importance of the award recognizing Daren Gee’s contributions to the industry was evident as he received the plaque, and his emotions made it difficult for him to express his appreciation.

Gee was studying to be a forest ranger at Fresno State University when he participated in a cotton growing project as a senior that turned his interest to agriculture.

After graduating in 1973, he sold agricultural chemicals, but eventually he quit that job and took a pay cut as an apprentice farmer in Oxnard. Later, he grew berries for Saticoy Berry Farms.

Now he’s one of the largest strawberry growers in the state with his 700-acre DB Specialty Farms, more commonly known as Darensberries.

He said his keys to success include developing good employees who are well-trained and have a degree of freedom and ownership of their products and asking them to pass along what they have learned.

In addition, he said he keeps up on current technology and uses it to his advantage.

“You have to dominate in research and development if you want to be the front-runner in any industry,” he told EconAlliance.

What he considers most important to his success is honesty, hard work and respect, with his ultimate goal to be “a good family man” and to “love whatever I’m doing.”

Pioneer families

Alton Allen family — In 1968, Alton and Sidney Allen and their three sons moved to Santa Maria, where Alton sold John Deere tractors and worked thinning broccoli fields.

He and a partner opened Sunset Strawberry Growers in 1976, initially leasing five acres to grow strawberries with his sons and five sharecroppers, then later expanded with the West Main Cooler to serve other shippers.

He bought out his partner, made his son Paul his partner, expanded the cooling business, financed and marketed other growers’ berries, then expanded their own acreage.

Paul launched and, following Alton’s death in 2003, still runs Main Street Farms, which with its affiliates ships strawberries all over the nation as well as major metro areas of Canada, Taiwan and now China.

Abel Maldonado Sr. family — Farming in the Valley since 1965, Abel Maldonado Sr. began working for Adams Farms and, in 1977 with a co-op venture, grew strawberries on the family’s first 3-acre parcel.

In 1987, he left Adams Farms to grow strawberries on 50 acres. In 1988, he expanded the acreage to 96 by incorporating as Agro-Jal Farms and introduced its first Red Diamonds label. Its second Paloma label was introduced in 1990.

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By 1993, the company had its own cooler on a 5-acre parcel on West Main Street, and in 1995 it purchased 535 acres of farmland.

Today, Agro-Jal and Naturipe Berry Growers farm 400 acres of strawberries and 75 acres of cane berries as a joint venture, and Agro-Jal operates 5,600 acres, owns more than 2,100 acres and leases more than 1,300 acres.

Luis Chavez family — Raised in a home with no electricity or running water in a small rural town in Jalisco, Mexico, Luis Chavez came to California in 1955 as part of the Bracero guest worker program.

He worked double shifts for 16 years at Adams Dairy until he could lease an acre to plant strawberries in 1977, then gradually built the business to become L&G Farming Inc.

He became a grower/partner with California Giant Associates in 1982 and served as Cal Giant president for 13 years.

Currently, the family farms more than 800 acres of strawberries a year in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties and, at age 83, he still works daily in the family business.

Miguel Chavez family — Immigrating to California in 1967, Miguel Chavez picked strawberries and performed other odd jobs until he received amnesty in 1974, then married in 1976.

He and his wife would work 10 hour shifts at their regular jobs, then would go pick strawberries they grew on less than an acre.

In nine years, M. Chavez & Son was growing 130 acres of strawberries, which expanded to 350 acres as a grower for California Giant until he opened his own commercial cooling facility.

In 2000, he became president and chief executive officer of MJA Cooling and leases most of his land to other farmers who cool their products at his facility before shipping them nationwide.

Sheehy family — Coming from County Cork, Ireland, in the 1840s, the Sheehy family settled in Watsonville.

Grandsons Ken and Rod talked with Ned Driscoll, founder of Driscoll Strawberry Associates, and decided there would be a demand for fresh berries after World War II ended, so they moved to Santa Maria.

Prior to their first farm, Gardena Ranch on Donovan Road, strawberries hadn’t been grown commercially in the area.

Following the war, the family was instrumental in bringing back Japanese American families to grow for them, including the Furakawas, Kagawas and Matsumotos, who went on to form their own berry companies.

The families many “firsts” included the first air shipment of berries in 1947, the first drip irrigated berries in 1968, in-house pest control department for berries in 1972, the first laser leveler in 1976, the first use of predatory mites in 1988 and the first bug vacuum in 1989.

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