Home, Home on the Range...
Only constant growth can create the high-level jobs that keep a family business going from one generation to the next.
I WAS ABOUT EIGHT YEARS OLD when I hauled my first bucket of cherries from the family fruit orchards near Caldwell, Idaho, at a place called Sunny Slope. The cherries weighed almost as much as I did. No matter. The Symms kids were in the fields when we were old enough to carry a bucket, and we worked under the same rules as the hired hands.
The rules did not tolerate malingerers, whether they had family connections or not. Ted Greer was orchard boss at the Symms Fruit Ranch. My dad had a rule for the kids which Ted enforced: You either picked a dollar's worth of cherries a day, about 40 pounds, or you got "the board!" He could not afford to have you using a ladder and bucket if you weren't productive.
I had to struggle. One day, I only made a dollar and two cents — just enough to escape the board. Loren Greer wasn't as lucky; he got a whipping because his load of cherries fetched only 97 cents. By the time I was 15, 1 was picking 500 pounds a day; once we figured out how much money we could make they didn't have any trouble getting us to pick. "A buck or a board" is still heard at family gatherings.
Not much has changed since then. The weather is out of your control, but not the effort you put into your work. And hard work is still a major ingredient for success in the orchard business, even one that has grown as ours has. Today, the Symms Fruit Ranch employs hundreds of workers and meets a payroll of several million dollars. Our employees pack more than 100,000 boxes of peaches and thousands of boxes of plums, pears, and cherries. More than a million boxes of apples left our orchards last year, and we will be picking upwards of two million boxes before long. Our Ste. Chappelle wines sit on dinner tables from Washington, D.C., to Washington state. All this growth has created opportunities for an increasing number of family members and has been a key element in passing the company from one generation to the next.
As successful as the business is today, it resulted less from planning than it did from seizing opportunities as they arose. I suspect this holds true for most things in life and in business. In fact, our family business started with a broken plan in 1912. My grandfather, R.A. Symms, was on a train heading west, carrying in his vest pocket a deed for land, and in his heart a dream of going into the orchard business and building a life for his family. Relying on the claims and promises of a land speculator, my grandfather had purchased land in Oregon to plant his trees. Along with the deed, the somewhat gullible 43-year-old Wisconsin native had visions of green, fertile valleys. He was in for a surprise.
R.A. was no stranger to business. With his father and brother, he had built buggies in Newton, Kansas, until Henry Ford put them out of business. Coffeeville, Kansas, was his next stop. There he tried his hand at dairying, but his real ambition was to go west and grow an orchard. He was primed to fall for a land scheme.
When he got off the train in Caldwell, Idaho, the closest stop to his destination in Oregon, R.A. bought a horse and asked directions from a local businessman named John Smeed. After examining the deed, Smeed said, "Symms, you don't want to go out there. It's just a desert. You can't grow orchards out there, but you ought to go out towards the Snake River and look around." A stubborn sort, R.A. mounted his horse and headed for Oregon anyway. To get there, he had to cross the Snake River at what is now Marsing, Idaho, where he first saw Sunny Slope. He decided to settle there. So much for planning.
R.A. bought what is now the home 80 acres of our ranch. Everybody thought he was crazy because it was just a pile of sand. But a reclamation project was underway, so water was available.
In 1913, R.A. sent for his wife, two sons, and daughter. As for the land in Oregon, he never saw it. We paid taxes on it, $6 to $8 a year while I was a kid, up until a few years ago when we finally let it go.
Fruit trees take years to mature and produce fruit. In the meantime, the family needed money to buy food. The first thing R.A. did was build a shack, buy some cows, and go back into the dairy business to develop cash flow. Those were hardscrabble days. The family lived in one end of the shack and milked cows in the other end. R.A. also grew vegetables. He marketed the milk and produce at the nearby boomtown of Silver City and at the sprawling cattle ranches of eastern Oregon.
His sons — my dad, Darwin, and my Uncle Doyle-while still in their early teens, would take four — horse wagonloads of produce to Jordan Valley, Oregon, and Silver City, about a 60-mile run. Because their horses could not carry a full load up a steep hill, they would cross the Snake River by ferry, unload half of the produce at the bottom of Poison Creek Hill, go up to the top, unload the other half, then go back to the bottom and get the rest. Their dad gave them a single barrel shotgun for protection from highwaymen during the two-day trip.
It was the spring of 1914 when the first trees went in. The goal was to grow enough to pay the bills, feed the family, create a contingency fund, and have some left to reinvest in the business. The trees matured and R.A's dream came to fruition. We still have six of the original trees to remind us of that heritage.
It wasn't certain that my dad and Uncle Doyle would take over when the time came. Farm life was tough. Doyle and Darwin grew up without electricity or running water. After a financial setback in 1921, when Dad lost $500 growing potatoes, he interrupted his college education to get a job earning $45 a month, $25 of which went to satisfy the bank. After repaying the loan, he returned to the College of Idaho in Caldwell. He put himself through college by buying and operating a school bus. After graduating in 1928, he returned to help run the farm. Dad and Doyle formed the Symms Brothers Family Partnership, a 50/50 proposition. They incorporated as Symms Fruit Ranch Inc. in 1958.
In the early years, my father and uncle had ignored any weakness in the markets and kept expanding, based on their belief that the future would bring higher demand. They continued planting new varieties of Red Delicious apples even when apple prices were depressed to 50 cents a box and everybody else was pulling trees out. Right after World War II our trees were in full production when demand for red apples exploded as the troops came home hungry for fresh fruit.
Long hours were expected, particularly during harvest. Before forklifts, the fruit was all handled by hand. It wasn't unusual to work from early morning to midnight, hauling fruit in from the orchards,loading the railcars, and icing them down to keep the fruit cool. When other kids were off fishing in the Snake River or swimming in the ponds, we would spend our days spraying trees, planting and pruning, digging ditches, or picking fruit. At times, I recall thinking the family business could be like a prison, keeping me from joining my friends. In retrospect, we learned a valuable lesson by being taught to put our responsibilities before our recreation. Even after the trees began producing and providing cash flow, we kept a few milking cows. I suspect this was as much to teach responsibility to the younger Symms — me, my brother, sisters, and cousins — as it was to provide milk.
It wasn't all work though. Dad also believed in playing hard. In our spare time, he took us into the canyons. We shot rabbits and ground squirrels. Or we went rock rolling. Prime rock rolling spots were Jump Creek, Poison Creek, and Squaw Creek, which are deep canyons in the hills of the Owyhee Mountains. We'd get way up on top and start the rocks rolling down into the canyons. Fun was simpler to come by in those days and pleasures less complicated.
I expected to stay in the family business. My college degree is in horticulture, chosen with my father so I would learn tree fruit production. After college, and a three-year stint in the Marines, it was back to the ranch. From that time in 1963 until I left in 1972 to pursue politics, the size of the ranch doubled.
SUCCESSION AND GROWTH are inextricably entwined at the family ranch. If my brother Dick, Kathy Mertz (Uncle Doyle's daughter), and I or our children were to make our living at the ranch, it needed to grow substantially over the years. Growth in the fruit business means more trees producing more fruit. The key was to acquire more acreage, which the company did in two ways. The operating company, Symms Fruit Ranch Inc., acquired orchards outright. When neighbors fell on tough times and ranches were auctioned off for debts, Dick and I stood on the courthouse steps to put in our bids.
Leasing land or orchards was an attractive alternative because it provided a means of distributing the physical assets of the company among potential heirs. When I returned to the business, I bought 80 acres of producing orchards from another operator and leased them to Symms Fruit Ranch.
The ability to "lease back" to the operating company was also an incentive for family members to stay involved. When my sister's husband passed away, she leased her property to Symms Fruit Ranch and now works in the office. Today, the ranch controls about 3,500 acres in fruit, about half of which is owned by the corporation, some owned by family members and leased back, and still more leased from other companies or individuals.
In our company as in other family businesses, the selection of management is more complex than just reviewing resumes. Trust, love, tradition, responsibility, and other subjective values play big roles. Darwin and Doyle were 50/50 partners and best friends, sharing equally in management decisions, but that isn't to say they agreed 100 percent of the time. The transfer of authority was a slow process, and not very well defined. Dad and Doyle never completely left the business until they died; they just gradually left more of the decisions to us.
Major decisions were sometimes hard to make, like when we debated whether or not to start growing grapes. Dick was in favor of growing grapes, citing the growth potential in wine grapes in California and even the fledgling wine-making industry in Idaho. Uncle Doyle seemed to be following his lead. I was opposed to growing grapes, predicting that a vineyard would lead us to owning a winery and having to deal with federal agencies. Dad sided with me. We argued until Doyle, who was president, finally said, "I can see we're not getting anywhere so if you add mine and Dick's stock you'll see it's 52 percent. We're growing grapes." I drove to California to pick up the cuttings, and we were in the grape business.
All my predictions have come true. We started by selling grapes to California wineries and also to a small entrepreneur trying to establish an Idaho winery. Within a few years he owed us a quarter of a million dollars. We ended up buying the winery. Now Ste. Chappelle is producing award-winning wines and, I have to say, has really made Symms Fruit Ranch well known, even though it is a very small part of the overall operation.
TODAY DICK IS BOSS, in part, I suppose, because he was the firstborn son, but also because he just assumed the job. When I was active, I supervised the production side of the business, running the harvest, pruning, and planting. Dick ran the sales, packing, and office operations. Our separate jobs usually kept us out of each other's way. When a decision required both of us, we'd work it out. That's the way it is in a family business. Not only do you have to get along at work, you go to church together, share family picnics, and look after each other's kids. We felt that, no matter how serious the disagreement, we had to deal with our emotions in a constructive way. There was no alternative — we had to work it out.
For me, supervising a harvest taught me things that have served me well all my life. When I first ran for public office, my critics accused me of not being able to compromise because I was (and am) a conservative. I told them that anyone who had harvested a crop of perishable fruit knows how to compromise. I've fired whole crews, when they weren't picking the fruit right.
Then, if I couldn't find anyone else to work, I'd go find the crew boss and renegotiate the price, the picking standards, and all the rest. Maybe one of the reasons we've developed such a compatible relationship with our employees is that we set an example. I was running a cherry-picking crew of 100 when I was 16. There were always family members working hard.
Originally, the ranch supported only one family. It now supports six Symms families plus the families of the employees. During harvest more than 1,000 workers bring in the fruit. At other times, it takes 300 people to keep the business running. Some have been with us for 40 years. A handful of families have worked at the ranch for two or three generations.
Another generation waits its turn to run the business. My son, Dan, represents the fourth generation of Symms to work in the orchards. Again, if the ranch is to afford his generation, it will have to grow. We see expansion coming from foreign markets, especially the Pacific Rim.
R.A. Symms had a dream and a plan. His plan failed but his dream succeeded. I went to college to learn about tree fruit production, while my brother studied political science. Today, he's running the ranch and I'm a U.S. senator. As I said, most things in life do not turn out as planned — you respond to opportunities as they come your way.
Steve Symms was elected to Congress in 1972 and began representing Idaho in the Senate in 1980. Today he is ranking Republican on the Environment and Public Works committee and has long championed family business causes on the Senate Finance committee. In 1989 he introduced a bill, S. 659, to repeal the anti-estate freeze law, Section 2036(c) of the Internal Revenue Code. This past summer he introduced S.2783, the American Family Enterprise Preservation Act, to reduce gift and estate taxes affecting family businesses.