by Anna Der Minasian Garza
The History Department and the Armenian Studies Program co-sponsored a symposium, Armenians in the Raisin Industry: 1890-1990, on April 5, 1997, in the Alice Peters Auditorium at California State University, Fresno. A satellite room with closed circuit television was opened to accommodate the overflow audience of approximately 150. Partial funding for the conference came from the Kazan Endowment at CSU, Fresno.
In opening the conference, Dr. Dickran Kouymjian, Haig & Isabel Berberian Professor of Armenian Studies at CSU, Fresno and Coordinator of the ASP, referred to the “new Armenian royalty:” the Raisin King, the Fig King. He gave an account of research about Armenians in the Central Valley noting in particular, the thesis of Richard La Pierre, The Armenian Colony in Fresno County, California: A Study in Social Psychology. He also raised questions for consideration such as: Did Armenians engaged in farming in the San Joaquin Valley have farming experience before they came, and if not, how did they learn about agriculture?
Dr. Isabel Kaprielian, Henry S. Khanzadian Kazan Professor of Modern Armenian & Immigration History, organized and coordinated the symposium. Before beginning the first session, she acknowledged all who were involved in helping with the symposium.
Berge Bulbulian, a member of the Armenian Studies Program Board at CSUF, is currently writing the history of Armenians in Fresno County. Focusing on The Early History of Armenians in the Raisin Industry, he pointed out that the Central Valley is the largest producer of raisins in the world and that Armenians have been a major force in this development. Bulbulian named some Armenians who were engaged in the raisin industry in the early days and indicated where some of their farms and raisin packing sheds were located. One of the earliest marketers of raisins was the Seropian family, who came to Fresno in the latter part of the 19th century. As a result of law suits with the Guggenheim family and banking discrimination by banker O. J. Woodward, the Seropian family business was destroyed. Despite the fate of the Seropians, other Armenian families entered the raisin packing industry, and are still successfully operating today. As an example, he noted Enoch Packing Co., in Del Rey, CA, which is still operated by the grandchildren of Charles Enoch, the founder.
Bryan Bedrosian, ranch manager of Bedrosian Farms, gave an account of his family’s involvement in the raisin industry in his speech: From Moush & Kharpert to Fowler, California: The Bedrosian Family Chronicle. Because of the hardships in Armenia, his great-grandfather Krikor Yeghoyan left Kharpert for the U.S. in 1908. Other ancestors came from Moush. One of his grandfathers purchased a 100-acre grape farm in Fowler, in 1942. Through hard work and frugality, the family was able to purchase more land in 1958, then started the National Raisin Co. In 1969. Bedrosian discussed the impact of the rise and fall of the price of raisins on the family farm operations, and spoke of the involvement of his father, Ernest, in organizing the Raisin Bargaining Association in 1965.
Margaret Ohanesian, Vice President at Victor Packing, spoke about Armenian Women in Farming and Packing. Ohanesian stated the Armenian women and children worked both on and off the farm. Sometimes their additional incomes made the difference between losing or keeping the family farm. Often, Armenian widows continued to operate the family farm after their husband’s death. Many Armenian women helped their family business by keeping the family business books, working in packinghouses and canneries, and supervising the packing operations themselves. Jesse Gary, is an example of a successful Armenian business woman, who owns and operates Gary Packing, a fancy pack dried fruit business in Del Rey, CA.
Victor Sahatdjian, President of Victor Packing, spoke of The Sahatdjian Family History in Farming and the Raisin Industry. Sahatdjian explained how his family immigrated to the U.S., via Mexico, and came to the Fresno area as migrant farm laborers after the Genocide. They worked for the Dole Company living in company housing. Through great sacrifice, the Sahatdjian family saved up enough to buy their first farm in 1928 just before the Depression. While some family members worked on the farm, others worked outside but contributed their salaries to keep the land. The family started Victor Packing in 1963, and for 10 years no member of the family took a wage so the business could make a profit. Today the Sahatdjian family still runs the business.
Dr. Vincent Petrucci, Professor Emeritus of Viticulture and Enology at CSUF, moderated the second session.
Matthew Jendian, a doctoral candidate spoke on, The Farming Community and Marriage Patterns of the Armenians in Fresno County. He stated that the early period of immigrants settled in enclaves like “Armenian Town” in Fresno. Intermarriage in these early years was very low. As years progressed, the rate of intermarriage increased. In 1930, 10% of the 48 marriages of Armenians were to non-Armenians, and in 1940, 15% of the 56 marriages were to non-Armenians. In 1960, 54% of 63 marriages were to non- Armenians, and in 1980, 80% of 59 marriages were to non-Armenians. Intermarriage, he noted, was related to the fact that children of Armenian families moved to other towns and interacted with other cultures. Interestingly, the intermarriage rate dropped in 1990 to 68% of 63 marriages; this decline was due to an influx of Armenian immigrants in the 1980s. Jendian found that the American born children of Armenian born parents are three times more likely to marry non-Armenians than American born children of non- American born parents.
Vaughn Koligian, Chief Executive Officer of the Raisin Bargaining Association (RBA), gave a speech on The History & Role of the Raisin Bargaining Association. Koligian stated that California produces 75% of the world’s dark raisins and 45% of the world dried fruit. He explained how it became necessary to organize a collective bargaining association to restore order to the sale of raisins by farmers. The Raisin Bargaining Association was established according to terms of the Capper-Volsted Act (1922) which allowed farmers to unite to form a bargaining association. Led by Ernest Bedrosian, the RBA was set up in 1965, but at first, many growers were reluctant to sign with the RBA. Today the RBA is a nonprofit organization with 2,000 raisin farmers in the San Joaquin Valley.
Dr. Victor Davis Hanson, Professor of Classics at CSU Fresno discussed, Armenian Agrarians as seen by non-Armenians. Dr. Hanson began by saying that no one had done more for the raisin industry than the Armenians, except for Mexican-Americans. He referred to hard work as the foundation of successful farming, at least in the past. In discussing discrimination against Armenians in the Central Valley, Hanson raised the issue of envy. He also noted that Armenians sometimes expanded their farming operations to include agribusiness and this often ran counter to the North European Protestant agrarian work ethic.
During the question and answer period which followed each session the debate was lively. In her concluding remarks, Dr. Kaprielian suggested avenues for research and collaboration. “Aside from the need to examine more fully the Armenian experience in Fresno, we must also study the relationship between Armenians and other groups.” She said, “For instance, we should work on the Mexican Armenian connection, not only with respect to employer/employee relations, but also with respect to the role Mexico played in the immigration of Armenians to California.” Dr. Warren Gade, Chairman of History at CSUF, thanked the audience for attending, and in closing the proceedings commented on how well the symposium had been received.
In an interview following the symposium, Dr. Kaprielian spoke on the possibility of publishing the proceedings. She expressed the need to collect photographs, diaries, old accounts, books, advertisements, letters, and other memorabilia to be included in such a publication.