Pavich family cultivates a dream

Filed: April 25, 1998

Californian staff writer 

TERRA BELLA When Croatian immigrant Stephen Pavich Sr. arrived in California's Central Valley in 1953, he knew he could grow wholesome, delicious foods in this agricultural fruit basket. So he and his wife, Helen, leased 140 acres of prime farmland and proceeded to cultivate a dream.

Today, 45 years after Pavich first set foot in those fertile vineyards, his dream has evolved into one of the great agricultural success stories of the 1990s. Pavich Family Farms is the world's largest producer of certified organic table grapes and is a major player in the production and marketing of organic foods throughout the United States.

"The Pavich family has been a vanguard of organic farming for years," said Sandy Sanders, an organic farmer from Bakersfield. "They were into organic methods before organic was widely accepted."

In the late 1960s, Pavich's eldest son Stephen returned from college with a newfound awareness and concern that modern farming was becoming increasingly dependent upon synthetic pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers. The family began to think about a new direction a new path to a brighter future.

One day Stephen was working in the vineyard when he was overcome by pesticide fumes from a spray tank. The frightening experience would provide an added urgency to the changes that were already being considered in the family business.

"It was like a lightbulb going off," he recalled. "It was saying, the future for us is not here in this tank of pesticide."

Soon afterward, the family made a commitment to find a natural means of farming that would produce quality fruit using methods that were biologically and ecologically in balance with nature, and which fostered a safer working environment.

Today, the company grows nine varieties of table grapes and many other fruits and vegetables on more than 4,000 acres of certified organic soil in California and Arizona. Last year, Pavich Family Farms shipped more than 2.5 million boxes of organic fruits and vegetables to all 50 states more than quadrupling the company's volume during the past decade-and-a-half.

On a recent spring morning, with the snow-capped Sierras as a backdrop, Stephen Pavich walked along the rows of the family's home vineyard near Richgrove. He reached down to pick some samples of the lush, green grasses and wildflowers that grow between the grapevines.

As he examined the cluster, damp with the morning dew, he pointed out the beneficial characteristics of the plants, and how their presence in the vineyard fits into his holistic approach to farming.

Pavich cultivates a selection of wild grasses and flowers that help his vineyards thrive without the use of pesticides or synthetic fertilizers.

"One reason we grow this cover crop is because it provides a habitat for beneficial insects," he said. "The ladybug is our company mascot."

According to Pavich, the wildflowers, fiddleneck and lupine that populate his vineyards make an attractive home for insects like the ladybug that prefer to dine on a whole range of destructive pests.

The cover crop also produces an enzyme in the soil that is offensive to root-infesting nematodes, and the lupine manufactures nitrogen that serves to enhance the nutrient content of the soil.

"During the 1920s and '30s, cover crops were one of the main ways farmers got nitrogen into the ground," he said. "My father used cover crops during the 1950s."

The lupine and fiddleneck will be useful even after they die, Pavich added. The organic matter will be used to make compost which will then be returned to the soil, enriching it yet again.

"Organic farming is a process, not a materials-based method," he said.

"We depend on a living soil for our success."

Pavich scooped up a handful of the rich soil in the vineyard and inhaled its aromas. "It has the smell of the forest," he said with a sigh. "I love that."

While Stephen Pavich continues to be responsible for all aspects of the company's farming operations, his brother and company president, Tom Pavich, handles the business functions.

Tom has guided the family business through annual growth rates reaching 25 percent. That's even better than the impressive 20 percent sales growth the $3 billion organic industry has enjoyed annually since 1990.

And new ventures into a chilled "not from concentrate" orange juice and a dual-branded organic bran cereal featuring Pavich's well-known raisins, have the family-run company meeting one challenge after another.

A planned move, probably in early May, will relocate Pavich's main office to Bakersfield.

"The organic market is still small," Tom Pavich said. "It's around 1 percent of the total food system.

We've chosen to establish ourselves in this market niche," he added. "And we're pretty proud of what we have done."

As the baby-boomer generation ages, and interest in healthy eating continues to grow, the organics industry is poised for even more growth in the coming years. And Pavich is well-situated to take advantage of that growth.

"I think dad would be very proud of us today," Tom said.

"He was happy to see me and my brother embrace organic practices and he was able to witness the benefit organic farming has to the soil, the water and ultimately to the harvest."

The Bakersfield Californian

P. O. Box 10420, Terra Bella, CA 93270-0420 Phone: (209)782-8700 Fax: (209)782-8808

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