Fruit of a Claremont grower’s labor

Adrian Vargas may work long hours—sometimes as many as 15 hours a day, 7 days a week—but the La Verne farmer, owner of Claremont’s longstanding strawberry patch, revels in the fruits of his labor despite the daily drudge.

He blames it on his bloodline, part of a long line of farmers who prospered in the vegetable fields of Michoacán, Mexico. More than a thousand miles away, from his early training, Mr. Vargas is proud to carry on the family tradition in Claremont and La Verne.

Following in his father’s footsteps as a farmer wasn’t an easy choice, especially with the unpredictable whims of the growing season and the often unfavorably stacked costs of growing to how much money each bundle of fruit brings in. But it was the only choice for him even when it meant seeing the money disappear for bills as soon as it came in, as it often times did. Despite the pitfalls, the Vargas family continues to find sweet satisfaction in strawberry farming.

“I love growing strawberries and seeing how happy it makes other people,” Mr. Vargas said. “For me, it’s all about helping other people.”

His affinity for the sugary sweet berry began in boyhood. Moving to La Verne from Mexico at the age of 12, Mr. Vargas began working at Cal Fruit in San Dimas. In between shifts, he enjoyed riding his bike up to Marshall Canyon where he would indulge in a few fresh berries picked ripe off the vine.

His strawberry obsession grew when Mr. Vargas found employment working in the strawberry fields of Jim Tagami. Under Mr. Tagami’s watch, the budding farmer would learn all there was to know about the art of strawberry farming, particularly the importance of patience.

Strawberry farming is a tedious task. The soil must be turned and watered then left alone for several days before the berries are planted and covered in black plastic. The waiting continues as mulch is added and a slow-drip watering system is engaged. Leaving the berries on the vine as long as possible is Mr. Vargas’ trick to growing the best berries possible, but that means waiting even longer.

After eight years helping Mr. Tagami maintain his 14 acres of farmland in Claremont and San Dimas, Mr. Vargas received the opportunity to fly on his own, taking over the Claremont patch in his employer’s stead. After finding his feet in the first two years running “Vargas Farms,” Mr. Vargas would move the patch to its prominent place on the corner of Base Line Road and Towne Avenue, where the land owner allowed Mr. Vargas to grow in exchange for paying the property taxes.

“She told me, ‘Adrian, I want you to be able to provide for your family.’”

Such goodwill has seemed to always follow him. In fact, the kindness of others has allowed Vargas Farms to continue its strawberry distribution despite recent hardships. The lot where Mr. Vargas operated his Claremont strawberry patch was recently sold to a developer after the death of the former landowner. He was offered the land, but was unable to afford the asking price. The last agricultural patch in Claremont has now become a thing of the past as the city paves way for a 95-unit condominium complex.

“I was really said, I thought, ‘This is the end of the farm,’” he said.  

Vargas Farms’ famous Claremont strawberries, however, are not going away altogether. Mr. Vargas continues to grow in Claremont at the hillside home of Mayor Pro Temp Corey Calaycay. He operates another field at the Methodist Church in La Verne. While he is sad to no longer be growing on the corner of Towne and Base Line, there is a silver lining in the expenses he is saving. The rising water costs in Claremont were crippling, according to Mr. Vargas. A typical monthly water bill at his patch in Claremont could cost him as much as $1800, he noted. He says his bill in La Verne is half that price.

The entire Vargas Family has had a hand in the farm’s continued success, spending much of their childhood in the fields, where they learned to drive with the tractor and ate berries off the vine just like their dad did. Vargas Farms continues to be a family affair—daughter Erica runs the farm stand off D Street in La Verne while a group of Mr. Vargas’ grandkids pick the strawberries out back.

The Claremont farm stand continues to operate at Base Line and Towne, but only on a month-to-month basis. They aren’t sure when their last day will be.

The Vargas family hasn’t let the looming deadline hamper their business. The fresh scent of strawberries perfume the air along with the fresh spring blooms. Recent difficulties haven’t affected the farm’s output. The stand is laden with cartons that overflow with succulent strawberries in their full glory, some drizzled in chocolate, others pressed into jam jars. Mr. Vargas estimates the stand may sell as many as 80 boxes of strawberries in a day.

Extra work has gone into keeping the strawberry supply plentiful. With the loss of the four-acre farm at Base Line and Towne, Mr. Vargas has been forced to operate several smaller patches as he searches for a larger space. But he doesn’t mind the extra workload. In his heart of hearts, Mr. Vargas takes a page from the Beatles’ songbook, “Strawberry Fields Forever.”

“It’s a part of my blood,” he said. “I can’t keep away.”

—Beth Hartnett


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