Irene De La Cruz: A produce business making a difference

I’m sure you’ve seen a fruit or produce vendor on the side of the road. They are hard to miss because there are so many of them. Here in Merced County we have them, too, although maybe not as many as in the Bay Area. You see them at every flea market, most street fairs, farmers markets and different community events throughout the county.

There are those that are just a chair, a table, the product and an umbrella for shade. For example, driving in Merced, you will often see a person with a small table and a couple of boxes of cherries or strawberries on the corner of Kibby Road and Olive Avenue. It’s usually a single person, no vehicle around, and the product they are selling.

These small produce businesses are legitimate and they have all of the required business paperwork and permits. These are hardworking individuals that have figured out a way to start a small business to sell their fruits, vegetables and other items. They are small, family businesses that are willing to put in the work and take the risk of selling produce that is time sensitive. They know that they have to move their product and sell it all to continue selling fresh produce.

There is a large number of Latino families that have a small produce business in Merced County. They work extremely long hours and follow the circuit of flea markets, such as the Merced Flea Market, Atwater Flea Market, Los Banos Flea Market, Le Grande Farmers Market, Livingston Downtown Open Market and others. They are making a difference as part of our local economy and keeping money circulating in Merced County by maintaining the concept of buying local.

Take, for example, a Merced County family that started a produce business 10 years ago in Dos Palos. They moved from Southern California and planned on going as far north as possible. In Southern California, the father had worked for a national fast-food business where he had been promised a management position if he stayed with the company. Time passed and that promise was never kept. After he realized that his dream of a management position was not going to happen, he decided to move his family to another town and start over.

As the family traveled through the Central Valley, their car ran out of gas near Dos Palos. They weren’t familiar with the area and were dollars away from being financially broke.

An educated man from Mexico, Ruben Castañeda put his thinking cap on and started speculating on the “what ifs.”He had nothing to lose in entertaining different ideas, but he knew he had to try something. He noticed there were a lot of “nopales” (cactus) in backyards around Dos Palos and it seemed they weren’t being used much.

He liked to eat nopales and saw that others liked them, too, or else they wouldn’t be growing them. This gave the Castañeda family an idea: since there are so many nopales plants in the area, ask for some and sell them.

The idea was to ask homeowners’ permission to cut some nopales in exchange for a little maintenance work on the plant. This required Castañeda to knock on the doors of strangers’ homes with nopales in their backyards, introduce himself, explain his plight and pray they would trust his intentions. This took a lot of nerve and talking on Castañeda’s part as he would approach people he didn’t know, but he did it.

Once Castañeda received homeowners’ permission, he cut some nopales and took them to his wife who would slice off the small thorns, clean them, cut them into small cubes and place them in small plastic bags.

The Castañeda family started the monotonous process of cutting nopales from one backyard at a time and selling them for only a dollar a bag. It caught on and people started buying these inexpensive small bags of “nopalitos” (cactus in small pieces).

Within a few months, they had enough money to keep their car full of gas, but not for the purpose of continuing to travel further to look for a place to settle. They stayed in the small town that had accepted them into its community and given them an opportunity to start over. They were eventually able to rent a home, keep up with the food they needed to feed five growing children and become part of the local business community. This is where “Ojo de Agua” Produce had its humble beginnings.

Today, Castañeda and his family have their own warehouse and processing plant where they employ 15 people from the community. They sell produce, nuts and other Mexican products from Bakersfield to Sacramento. Castañeda and his wife have three children who have graduated from California State University, Fresno, or UC Merced, and two more attending college.

This is an example of the American dream and hard work. It is also an example of the different opportunities available in Merced County.