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Tomato Farmer's Roots Deep in Heritage, Soil : Harry Davidian Lives for Family, Armenian Culture and His Farm

April 08, 1985|TIA GINDICK | Times Staff Writer

CUTLER, Calif. — Harry Davidian was feeling his age. He stretched his arms out ahead, then placed his hands behind his neck, which recently had been aching a lot. Here he was, 57 and once again waiting on the weather so he could plant this year's tomato crop.

Davidian's wife, Laura, watched his restlessness sympathetically. "He loves challenges. That's why he can't retire."

Davidian nodded. "Ambition," he declared in his gravelly voice, "it's got to be in you. I got so much ambition. I wish I could go back 30 years. I'd love to start over again."

Not that anything would be very different. As far as Harry Davidian is concerned, life's thrills can pretty much all be found farming tomatoes here in this flat, fertile community 20 minutes northeast of Visalia against the Sierra foothills.

Cutler--it's where family and friends are, where a man can hold on to his heritage, where a man still earns respect because of his values and ethics.

Largest Shipper

Davidian started out after World War II by planting tomatoes on just one of his father's 20 acres and became, in the 1960s, the world's largest shipper of vine-ripened tomatoes (for a single crop season). Sixteen years ago he formed a partnership with local auto dealer George Zarounian, a partnership that outgrew financial need but nevertheless continues, merely on the basis of friendship. Then they backed two men, Bert Cutino and Ted Balestreri, who wanted to open a restaurant in the Carmel-Monterey area, and ended up with a relationship that has the four owning three-quarters of the real estate on Monterey's Cannery Row, including the Sardine Factory Restaurant and the Monterey Plaza Hotel now under construction.

Harry Davidian would like to see himself as typical of the farmers in this area. But during an economic period that most farmers liken to the worst of the '30s Depression, the mere fact that he's survived makes Davidian atypical. Indeed, where there were 35 tomato growers in the Cutler-Orosi area 10 years ago, only six are still in business today.

Even in better economic times, however, Davidian would still stand out. Everything is a passion, to be done with pride: growing a fine tomato, endless dancing at Armenian Kef nights, giving each of his three daughters big weddings, being there with money and support for other Armenian farmers, holding the traditional Armenian ground-breaking ceremony before building his wife the house of her dreams in 1976.

Always at his side, in true Armenian tradition, is Davidian's wife of 36 years, Laura: unfailingly supportive, willing to work alongside him--picking tomatoes, packing them and later running the Z & D packing shed, where she developed a quality pack that kept Zedco tomatoes on top of a highly competitive market--yet at the same time taking care of the house, raising the children and cooking for her husband and all the growers who came by the packing shed.

It's the manner of the man. Laura Balakian Davidian accepts it; his three daughters still do; just about everyone who meets Harry Davidian instinctively senses what he's always believed and probably what's driven him:

"I'm the boss at all times."

-- -- --

Harry Davidian is one of those people about whom stories are told. Except he tells them best himself. Like how it came about that he dropped out of school at age 14.

"My father was a farmer, but he was working in . . . (other people's) fields. So since seventh, eighth grade, I'd been taking care of the farm and going to school at the same time. One day I'm in high school and I run into Amos Margosian.

'This Is Useless'

"He said: 'This is useless. Why don't we quit school? We got a lot of work to do at home.' I thought he had a point, so I just leaped out the window--it was band class--and walked home. . . . The teacher had a kind of funny expression on his face."

The favorite story among people who know Davidian, however, is the time he and Margosian decided to grow cauliflower together and went to rent some ground. The man with the best 20 acres for their needs was an Oklahoman who, in the course of conversation, claimed to be the fastest runner in his home state. Davidian by virtue of being a farmer is a gambler. He's also into the Las Vegas scene, loves to play poker and back then--this was the fall of 1957--he saw a chance for some free land.

"I tell the guy--Amos isn't there at the time--that my partner is the fastest runner in these parts. It was the other guy's idea, but we agree to have a race. I forget the actual figures, say $200 per acre for 20 acres, which would be $4,000, or if Amos wins, nothing."

"I go get Amos. He says he hasn't run for a while. But he wins the race.

"I used Amos on a couple of different bets." Laughter at the memory. "I took him around like a horse."

-- -- --

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