Using old-fashioned hard work and a bit of a good country sense to take care of the land and grow premium quality produce - this was the philosophy set forth by Joe Aiello when he purchased a small Napa cabbage and chili pepper farm in April 1979. Since then, Uesugi Farms has grown into a fully-integrated producer and distributor of quality produce specializing in peppers, sweet corn and cabbage. Headquartered in Gilroy, California, Uesugi Farms harvests more than 5,000 acres of land in California, Arizona and Mexico.
A family venture
While farming in Morgan Hill, California in the early ‘70s, Joe met longtime farmer and mentor George Uesugi, who realized that he needed someone dependable to take over his 50-acre farm. Seeing a unique ambition and work ethic in Joe, George asked him if he would be interested in taking on this challenge. Determined to seize this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, Joe teamed up with Dennis Humphreys to purchase the farm from George, and he moved in with his wife and two young boys in a small cottage on the farm. In 2004, Joe purchased Dennis’s share of the company and assumed 100 percent of Uesugi Farms, keeping the name in honor of George.
Today, Joe’s son, Pete Aiello, is manager of Uesugi Farms and runs the day-to-day operations. The company offers more than 20 varieties of fresh produce to retailers, foodservice distributors, wholesalers and processors across the nation and the world. “Our approach to business is straightforward,” says Aiello. “We combine quality products with quality service, along with a healthy dose of calculated risks to continue growing and stay just ahead of the market.”
In its effort to grow, Uesugi Farms has continued to update its operational facilities while increasing its acreage. The company recently acquired 200 acres in Morgan Hill, California, and another 40 in Brentwood, California. The company has also added three new growers in Mexico.
In 2013, Uesugi Farms was able to turn the key on its new solar powered facilities in Gilroy, adding a major sustainability aspect to its operation. Construction on the new solar-powered venture began in 2012 but the vision for the implementation of alternative energy began five years earlier. “At that time there was a big push for alternative energy,” says Aiello. “Solar was really popular and at the top of the list. The government was providing some pretty aggressive incentives so it made a lot of sense for us to go in that direction.”
A challenge presented to Uesugi Farms at the time was the fact that the company had just recently built a new cold storage facility. This created a bit of hesitance from the bank to provide another loan for the solar project. “That was the only delay in realizing the project,” recalls Aiello. “Once we got that situated we were finally able to get started on it.”
Since completion, the solar-powered facility has been nothing but beneficial to Uesugi Farms. Due to a design effort the company was able to offset its energy usage by nearly 100 percent until Uesugi Farms began icing its own sweet corn, which cut the energy offset by approximately 40 percent. “We now have plans to implement another phase of construction on our solar facility to offset that energy and bring it back to 100 percent,” shares Aiello.
One move ahead
With the ebb and flow of the agriculture industry, Uesugi Farms is not immune to the common challenges faced by other producers, with labor presenting the biggest obstacle and worsening every year. “When you rely on your labor to come from outside of the country, the government makes it very difficult with our current immigration system,” Aiello explains. “Our entire crop operation relies on hand harvest. We are working with some engineering firms and looking into some mechanical solutions that are coming around.”
Water presents a universal challenge to the agriculture industry, especially in California. In this regard, Uesugi Farms has remained a forward-thinking company for quite some time. “Ninety eight percent of our crop is irrigated via buried drip systems,” says Aiello. “We’re using a minimal amount of water to achieve a maximum effect. Not only can we irrigate with this system but we can also apply nutrients with it.” With zero evaporation and zero runoff, the company is able to use this system to apply the perfect amount of water and nutrients at the right time. Uesugi Farms is also looking into future upgrades for it buried drip systems, which will increase efficiency.
The acquisition of more acreage along with the implementation of the latest technology and irrigation systems are all part of Uesugi Farms’ efforts to continue to grow as a company and add more staff as the firm believes that great products come from great people.