The Imperial family of Wapato includes 10 siblings. Counting their in-laws and children, they number about 100 people. Yet, the atmosphere of the family-owned and operated Imperial’s Garden is one of a close-knit group. Of course, not all 100 work at the business. It just seems like it.
The Imperials immigrated with their parents to the Yakima Valley from the Philippines in 1983.
“You couldn’t even say we didn’t have a whole lot, we had nothing when we came here,” according to Company Vice-President Manuel Imperial. The baby of the family was in the tenth grade at the time. He and his brothers and sisters had attended an agriculture high school/college in their native land. That background served them well when they started farming and selling row crop produce, eventually setting up a produce stand on Lateral A in Wapato. After the death of their father, the five youngest siblings incorporated into Imperial’s Garden in 1991.
According to Manuel and his sister-in-law Margie, the initial structuring of the company is the key to why it has grown into a booming success today.
“We set it up so only blood family can be on the board,” Manuel said. “It was tough at first, but we quickly grew up and learned we had to rely on each other’s strengths. When you work side by side for 16 to 17 hours a day, it is taxing,” he added. “Sometimes we yell and scream, but we are still the same bloodline. We still have the passion to make this work. It is not the same if you say something out of frustration to an in-law.”
Margie, who earned a chemical engineering degree in the Philippines before marrying Marcelo and moving to the Wapato area, agrees the Imperials got it right when they planted the seeds of one of the largest farm stands in the region.
“I was the first in-law to work here,” Margie explained. “I was not used to yelling in my family and I left work and didn’t think I would come back,” she added with a chuckle. However, her wise father-in-law told her to give the siblings another chance. She said once she realized the passionate discussions were just their way of communicating, she was able to help them understand each other’s viewpoints, which was to the company’s advantage.
“I can see that often they all have the same idea but sometimes pride gets in the way and they don’t hear what the other person is saying,” Margie explained. “After an hour they get it out and I can summarize what was said and they figure it out,” she added. Margie adds her payroll officer duties at Imperial’s Garden to her full-time job as a sixth grade math teacher at Wapato Middle School. Education is valued by the Imperials almost as much as family. All 10 of the original siblings attended college, with several earning multiple degrees. They speak the Filipino dialect of Ilocano, English, and Spanish. It’s expected that their offspring will finish high school and attend college before considering a return to the family farm. So far, the third generation is following the example set for them. The youngest are finishing high school soon, with most of their cousins already having earned at least one degree.
The group all agrees an education is the best gift they can give their children. They also agree farming is hard work that deserves respect. While their kids spent summers working around the farm, they are welcomed back after experiencing the world beyond.
“It is important to understand what you are good at,” according to Manuel. “Only once we each recognized our own and each other’s strengths and weaknesses were we really able to succeed.” That realization was the seeds of growth. Imperials have expanded to owning 600 acres and farming a total of 1,300, all of it within a 10-mile radius of the company headquarters at Lateral A and W. Wapato Rd. The most acreage is in asparagus, then corn, followed by peppers, watermelon, and tomatoes. For the first time this year, they have branched out to juice grapes, which will be sold to Welches.
“What we raise is highly perishable,” Manuel explained. “We pick it and get rid of it within 24 hours. The getting rid of crops is part of his role in the company. “I do the buying and selling and negotiating,” he said. With Margie taking care of payroll, that leaves brothers Marcelo and Marlo with planting, production, and running the greenhouse, Melchor with packing and shipping, and sister, Virginia Ballesteros, as the financial manager. The recent addition of nephew David Young to oversee food safety and trucking marks the arrival of the next generation into company management.
The owners of Imperial’s Garden realize they could perhaps make more money working outside the family business. But they say they never talk about that.
“We talk about how we can get better,” said Manuel. “Not just for us, but also for our workers and who we sell to.” That is how family made this business succeed, and the business made the Imperial family what it is today.
“If any of the five of us had left, there wouldn’t be an Imperial’s Garden,” Manuel insists. “Because then it just doesn’t work!”