Agriculture and Fishing

Fruits, Vegetables, Tubers and Tuna

Portuguese immigrants are among industry leaders in farming sectors like sweet potatoes and watermelons. They once dominated the tuna industry from their base in San Diego.

Years:  1869 — 2009

Orchards and Canneries

Manuel Nunes came to the Bay Area in 1869, settled in the Berryessa area and started a walnut and prune orchard near Hostetter and Lundy Roads. Many new immigrants worked in the large established orchards until they had earned enough money to buy their own land.

By the 1920s, many Portuguese had joined the valley’s burgeoning fruit industry, producing prunes, pears, apricots, peaches, cherries, and grapes. Most of their orchards were small family farms under 100 acres.

Women and children supplemented their families’ incomes by picking fruit and working in the drying yards, packing houses, and canneries during the peak season. Several women recall the flatbed truck with benches that Tom Chew, owner of the Bayside Cannery in Alviso, sent around to the Portuguese farms to pick them up for work.

Tuna Fishing

In the 1880s, when the earliest Portuguese immigrants arrived in San Diego on whaling ships from the Azores, they settled in the area of Point Loma. They became fishermen, catching primarily barracuda and yellowtail.

By 1910, the Portuguese had begun to fish for a new food source -- tuna. Soon they became leaders in this new industry. By the 1950s, San Diego’s tuna fleet numbered two hundred and accounted for eighty percent of the world’s catch. Nearly half of the vessels were owned by Portuguese.

Sweet Potatoes

One of the pioneers of the sweet potato industry in the California's Central Valley was Frank Souza. Frank was born in Caveira, Flores, Azores, in 1869. He immigrated to the United States in 1886. Frank worked on fishing boats in Boston and set out for California in 1888. He arrived in Chowchilla and worked for five years, saving money to buy his own farm. In 1893, Frank purchased 20 acres in Atwater and began farming sweet potatoes. His hard work and innovation enabled him to ship his first harvest of sweet potatoes to San Francisco. By 1923, Frank was the first of many “sweet potato kings” of the Central Valley. In 1915, Frank received the gold medal for sweet potatoes at the Panama Pacific Exposition in San Francisco.

The current “sweet potato king” is Manuel Eduardo Vieira. Manuel arrived from Brazil in 1972 to work with his uncle, António Tomás, who had immigrated to the United States in 1920. António had incorporated A.V. Thomas Produce in 1960. Almost half of today’s growers are Portuguese-Americans.

In 1977, Manuel Vieira acquired A.V. Thomas Produce. Under Vieira’s guidance and in more recent years with the support of sons Carlos and Ricardo, volume has skyrocketed. A.V. Thomas marketed 1.5 million pounds of potatoes in 1976. In 2009, it exceeded 100 million pounds.

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