MASTERS OF RAISIN
by Alik Hovsepian
October 22, 2008
Central California is home to some of the world’s biggest, and
Armenian-owned, raisin companies
Sarkis Sahatdjian of Victor Packing. Kristina Sahatjian – Photo
Fresno – For over 120 years, Armenians have been at the heart of the
legendary raisin industry in California’s San Joaquin (or Central)
Ninety-nine percent of the U.S. raisin supply (and 45 percent of
the world’s) is grown in the Central Valley. There are about 3,500
producers and 22 packers, according to the Raisin Administrative
Committee. Beginning in the late 1800s and continuing until today,
Armenians have played a significant role in the Central Valley’s
agriculture. It wasn’t always easy, but perseverance and hard work
were what made them successful. But how did so many Armenians become
involved in the farming industry?
Many believe they became farmers because that’s what they did in the
old country. According to Berge Bulbulian, author of the book The
Fresno Armenians, that was not the case. "The early arrivals were
not farm people. They were sent by the Protestant missionaries," he
said. "Most of them were professional people of one kind of another
– merchants, teachers, and so on. Very few were farmers because
missionaries did not work in rural areas; they worked primarily in
urban areas. So the earlier arrivals were urban people, not farm
They became farmers because there weren’t a lot of other opportunities
for them, Bulbulian continued. Most Armenians preferred to become
entrepreneurs rather than laborers, and farming gave them the
opportunity to do that.
Farming was just beginning in the Fresno area when Armenians arrived
there in 1881. Bulbulian said farming was a feasible option for the
Armenian immigrants, as it didn’t require a lot of money or knowledge
of the English language. "You simply bought a place and farmed,"
he said. "They didn’t have expensive equipment; it was an easy way
to get started and farming was profitable."
The first known Armenian settlers in the Fresno area were the Seropian
brothers – Jacob, Garabed, Simon, and their half-brothers George and
John – who immigrated to the area in the early 1880s. They were also
the first Armenians to buy property, while the two younger brothers,
George and John, became the first Armenian farmers and packers. George
and John were also the first to ship dried fruit to other parts of
the country. Shipping via train was too expensive at the time, so
they shipped their products via mule teams, starting in 1894. Then,
in 1904, the two men incorporated the Seropian Brothers Company.
Around the same time, Lion Raisins was founded by an Armenian named
Alex Lion, in 1903. Lion Raisins is the oldest raisin-packing and
-shipping company still in business today and continuously operating
under the same family. Alex emigrated to Fresno from Armenia in
1892. His son, Alfred, ran the company until his death in 1963. Alfred
had two sons, Herbert and Alfred Jr., who also went into the family
business. In the late 1970s, the two brothers purchased approximately
700 acres of farmland and produced raisins in addition to packing
them. Today, Alfred Jr. is the president of Lion Raisins, the largest
family-owned raisin packer and grower in the world, with his three
sons very active in the business.
Like the Lion family, many in the industry followed in
their families’ footsteps. Sarkis Sahatdjian’s father was a
businessman-turned-farmer. Sarkis grew up on the farm and later went on
to become the co-founder of Victor Packing, in 1963, with his brother,
Haig. Sarkis was born in Constantinople in 1920. He and his family
left the city in 1923 and settled in Fresno the following year. His
father, Vagharshag (Victor), worked for his family’s leather tannery
in Constantinople and had no farming experience. "My father got into
farming because language was a barrier," Sarkis said. "He tried to
pack figs, dried fruit, and things like that, but when it came time
to sell, language was a barrier. He had someone doing it for him, but
it just didn’t work out. So he decided to go into farming, in 1928."
Their goal at the time was to survive. They were the migrant workers
of that era. They worked in Yuba City for peach season and in the
winter months in Fresno packing houses, packing figs, raisins,
and other fruits. "That’s how we got by until he accumulated a few
dollars to make a down payment on a farm," Sarkis said.
In the 1930s, when he was a teenager, Sarkis started working in
canneries for the Del Monte Corporation. After serving in the military
during World War II, Sarkis and Haig returned to Fresno, where Sarkis
farmed and Haig worked in the banking industry. "It was challenging
to do something that had a business background," Sarkis recalled. "We
always learned from our father to go into a business of some kind. We
decided to go into the raisin business and we have been growing ever
since. We wanted to market our own product instead of being at the
mercy of other people." Today Sarkis and Haig are retired and Victor
Packing is run by Sarkis’ children: Victor, Margaret, and Bill.
The National Raisin Company was founded in 1969 by brothers Ernest,
Krikor (Kay), and Kenneth Bedrosian. Today it is one of the largest
independent raisin packers in the world, with its Champion Raisin
brand available at stores across the United States. The company
was founded in 1969. Although their parents, Murad and Elizabeth,
were among the later arrivals to America, times were hard for them
because there was so much discrimination against the Armenian people.
According to a report written by Ernest’s son, Bryan, Murad began
working for another Armenian on a watermelon field. A year later he
rented land and began growing his own watermelons. Elizabeth worked
in Rio Vista cutting asparagus. After they married, they continued
working in the vineyards, selling raisins to other Armenian-owned
packing houses. They later purchased 120 acres in Fowler, which is
now home to National Raisin Company.
After two years in the army, Ernest returned to the farm. He
helped his father expand the business, and his brother, Kay, joined
them. Ernest became very active in the politics of the raisin and wine
industries. He worked hard to form the Raisin Bargaining Association
in 1966 and went on to become its first president.
Presently there are ten major raisin packers in the Central
Valley. They are: Boghosian Raisin Packing Co., Caruthers Raisin
Packing Co., Inc., Chooljian Brothers, Del Rey Packing Co., Lion
Raisins, Mariani Packing Company, Inc., National Raisin Company,
Sun-Maid Growers of California, Victor Packing, Inc., and West Coast
Growers, Inc. Six of these companies are Armenian-owned.
Jake Mooradian is a retired farmer who also grew up on a farm. His
father, Dick Mooradian, left Kharpert and moved to New York in the
early 1900s, when he worked for an envelope company. He later settled
in Fowler and made a living as a farmer. Dick was the superintendent
of the largest bleaching plant in the world, which was also located
on his vineyard – as stated in an article published in the Fresno
Bee-The Republican on November 6, 1932.
"Armenians from the early 1900s succeeded and the rest of the people
in the industry didn’t like that," Jake said. "They were very honest,
but it was hard to deal with them. That’s one of the reasons that
the Armenians weren’t liked: because they were aggressive and they
liked doing things their way. Armenians were successful in farming
because they were hard workers."