I started working for my father and uncle in 1974.
My father wanted to immediately put me in a management role, when I started. I resisted that because I felt that I first needed to do the jobs that I was going to be managing. That way I could better understand them and also gain the respect of the people.
Over the next four years, I did just about every job in the packinghouse. Our spring vegetable season used to be our busiest time of year. In May, it was not unusual to work 18 hour days. One of my early jobs was working on the loading crew. This was in a time before we discovered forklifts. Every package was moved by handtrucks and then hand-stacked onto trucks.
Ralph Houston was the loading foreman. He was a cigar chomping, no-nonsense kind of guy. I worked under him and his assistant “Big Willie” Robinson for several seasons. It was nothing for Ralph to clock 120 hours in a typical week in May. My Dad affectionately called him Ralphy. He was extremely sharp with math and was in this position because of it. Ralph rarely made a counting error. Big Willie was extremely accurate as well, but he was a little more methodical in his approach.
There were literally 8 – 12 guys with handtrucks that would form a line. Each handtruck could carry 3 – 4 bushel baskets that you would clamp onto. Ralph would count out lines of produce while holding a notepad. He would direct the handtruck crew where to start and stop. You would keep going back and forth from the pile and into the truck with the loads until Ralph told you to stop. Usually, he would turn a bushel sideways to mark the stopping point. I remember sometimes we were moving product from the opposite end of the packinghouse. We would hustle back to get another by riding the empty handtruck like a scooter. You would balance the handtruck while standing on the axel with one foot and pushing off with the other. It was skill in itself and it kind of made the job fun. Everyone usually got in on the act because no one wanted to be ridiculed for being lapped by another worker.
On the truck, there were normally two stackers that hand stacked every bushel into tiers. There were different stack patterns for different products. Cucumbers were not stacked as high because of weight. The baskets were stood straight up in alternating rows of 5 & 6. Pepper was air stacked but would be stacked all the way to the roof. Hampers of eggplant were tight stacked with one up & one down. It was a thing of beauty to watch skilled stackers load a truck. It took strength, endurance, and skill to flip the bushels into place and do it quick enough to keep ahead of the steady stream of handtruckers delivering their loads. We still have a couple of those skilled stackers working for us today. Jesse Williams and James (Boo boo) Robinson were two of our finest stackers. I worked alongside Lonnie Gonzalez, Ricky Berry, Dino Berry and many more, while handtrucking day and night.
Ralph had a philosophy that if he was working, you should be working. He expected a lot out of his crew. He demanded the same level of dedication to the job that he showed. It didn’t always turn out that way. Payday being on Friday was not such a good plan, since the work often continued through the weekend. He was tough on employees that took off without his prior approval.
I don’t remember Ralph saying the following firsthand, but Jesse Williams told me one of his memories was a saying Ralph used when an employee was complaining. According to Jesse, it went like this, “Don’t grumble to stay, grumble to be on your merry way.” I do remember Ralph telling employees to go on across the tracks, when he was fed up.
Ralph was quick and on the money. I can still see Ralphy standing in front of a line of baskets, chomping on his unlit cigar, chanting Hey, Hey, Hey, thinkin’ about my baby comin’ back home (with a special emphasis on the Hey Hey Hey).
Wish Farms is headed for great things.