Jerry Fry was born and raised on his family farm, which he took over in the 1970s, growing heirloom beans, winegrapes and cherries. Our new collection of full-flavored heirloom beans from the Mohr-Fry Ranches are not hybridized for industrial production, and are hearty, healthy and delicious — thanks to Fry’s commitment to sustainable farming.
I asked Fry about the Mohr-Fry family business, the importance of sustainability and his favorite ways to enjoy his farm’s beans. Read what he had to say in the Q&A below.
What is the history behind Mohr-Fry Ranches? How did farming become part of your family’s story?
It started with my great-grandfather Cornelius Mohr, who came into San Francisco on a whaling ship. He worked in the city, gold mining, but he found it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be and began working on farms in the Bay Area. Then he purchased property on part of a Spanish land grant in Mount Eden in Hayward, California. He started a farming operation there in 1855 and it’s been in the family ever since.
Around 1955 we moved the operation up to the Lodi area, but the homestead is still there in Mount Eden. We began farming winegrapes, sugar beets, cherries, dried beans, safflower, rice — lots of different commodities.
We all communicate very well. Everyone has their areas they cover: I’m the President/CEO, my sister is the VP of Administration, my son is the VP of Operations and my brother-in-law is the CFO. We’re trying to keep it going, and it’s worked very well so far.
You are committed to sustainable farming operations. Why is that philosophy important to your business?
When you grow continually, the soil is like a piece of china that you reuse over and over again, not like a disposable cup. You need to be aware of what’s going into it and do things to keep it healthy, such as rotating crops.
We like “sustainable” as opposed to “organic” because it looks at everything — the environment and the soil and the social aspects, such as community and employees and economic sustainability. We’re concerned about health and community and want our workers to feel good, and feel like they are part of the family. We have one gentleman who’s worked for the family for over 65 years — that tells you something. It’s about communication, trusting people and giving them reign so that they are proud of what they’re involved in.
What is the most important thing about the connection between farmer and food?
The closer the connection, the more confidence people have. There are so many things in the media about pesticides and such, and when people come to our farm and see what’s going on, they can feel safe with what they eat from us.
Why is your partnership with Williams-Sonoma important or exciting to Mohr-Fry?
It brings the farm closer to the end user, to the customer. I’m 70 now, and when I was growing up everybody I knew had a connection to a farm. Now, only two or three percent of people are actually farming, so that connection is being lost. It’s nice to get that back again.
Why have you focused on growing winegrapes, cherries and beans, and what do you look forward to the most?
We enjoy them all because they are different seasons. Winegrapes and cherries are permanent crops, and wine is interesting to talk about everywhere in the world. Cherries are such a delight — they’re beautiful and obviously people love to eat them.
It’s the same with the beans: we’re very proud of the quality and variety of what we produce. It’s nice to see people enjoying something you’re selling, especially when it’s healthy for them. We’ve grown over 28 varieties, every color, size and shape, and they’re all just a a little bit different when it comes to growing and cooking. And they’re very tasty.
What’s your favorite way to eat the beans you produce? What makes them unique?
I like them in salads and soups, such as minestrone and chowders — particularly the Christmas lima beans. Their color makes them nice to add to dishes.
The variety and quality of beans that come from our area make them unique, because of the growing conditions, the weather and the soils. In other areas it’s difficult to grow many different things in one place because of climate or soil, but we’re fortunate that we have a choice of plants that can grow here. The conditions are a cut above — cooler areas can’t mature the beans and achieve the flavors we have.
Describe a typical day at work.
I’m usually roaming around a little before 6, heading for the fields. Every day is different; what I thought I might be doing usually changes. I’ll go out and check the fields, attend meetings and compare this year’s records to last year’s. In the winter things are slower and we can get away in the middle of the week and go snow skiing. I still play basketball twice a week with my sons.
I have never regretted getting up in the morning. Things work out. Last year we had a frost and I was worried about the grapes. One of the things my father used to say was that if you have a problem, there’s no use worrying about the problem. Worry about the solution. Don’t waste any energy.
Photo Credit: First 3 images courtesy of Paolo Vescia.