This summer, 22 members of the Overgaag family trekked to the Netherlands to visit their ancestral home where a couple of well-known California grower-shippers can trace their beginnings.
Leading the group was Art Overgaag and his wife of 55 years, Magda. They emigrated from the Netherlands in 1968 and though they have been back many times, this was the first time the entire family made the trip together. The idea had been percolating for many years. Fifteen years ago, for their 40th anniversary, the couple took the family to Baja California. And five years later, Hawaii was the site of the family gathering.
This time the Netherlands served as the destination, and what a history the family was able to explore and celebrate.
It was in 1920 when Art’s father, Leo, started the family down the agricultural path. He began “outdoor farming,” as Art called it, but soon adopted a technology using “flatglass.” It wasn’t a greenhouse but it used the same basic concept. Crops were grown in planter boxes with a piece of flatglass that opened and shut, protecting the crops from the elements.
It wasn’t long, however, before the elder Overgaag installed regular greenhouses on his property. For many years, he grew many different types of fresh crops.
It was into this environment that Art was born and raised. He grew up on the farm and launched his own nursery operation at the age of 19 in the early 1950s. He got married, and he and Magda built their own successful greenhouse farm in Den Hoorn, the Netherlands, before coming to the United States in 1968 with their four young children.
Art and the family first landed in New York, which was a bit of an adjustment as the family’s patriarch says he didn’t know one word of English. Some family connections helped them move to California where Art was able to use his knowledge of farming to secure a job as a groundskeeper for a large Santa Barbara estate.
“The kids picked up English very fast,” which helped he and his wife establish a new life in the Golden State, he said.
While working at the estate, he continued to look for some property to buy to resume his career as a greenhouse grower. He did, in fact, find a piece of land in Carpinteria with some greenhouses that had been used for the production of cut flowers. Scraping together some cash, Art Overgaag opened Hollandia, with the obvious moniker tie to his homeland, as a cut-flower operation.
He did have flower-growing experience, as he said his father was quite a diversified greenhouse grower producing many different crops. Art said his father’s philosophy was to have “as many arrows in your quiver” as you could to spread out the risk.
In Carpinteria, Hollandia started with carnations and quickly added chrysanthemums. Over the next decade, the firm became an accomplished greenhouse grower and shipper of cut flowers specializing in chrysanthemums and gypsophila, as well as blooming and foliage plants from fuchsias to poinsettias.
The company expanded its operation, building more greenhouses as the need arose. Eventually all four children — Leo, Ellen, Pete and Karin — would work on the family farm.
But by the 1980s, cheaper flowers from South America started to appear in the U.S. marketplace. Art and his son Pete, who was an integral part of the operation at this point, started to look toward other crops. It became obvious that it would be difficult to continue to compete against the cut flower imports. In 1987, they added hot house cucumbers to their repertoire, and soon added other vegetables as well as they transitioned into the vegetable business.
The firm’s last flower crop — three acres of chrysanthemums — was planted in 1989. By that time, Art was still involved in the flower crops, but Pete was running the vegetable production side of the business. With the end of that crop, Art basically retired while Pete remodeled the greenhouse to take advantage of state-of-the-art technology and convert them to full vegetable production.
It was also in the late 1980s that Hollandia’s sister company was launched. Son Leo Overgaag wanted to have his own company and found some good land to purchase in the desert town of Thermal, CA, where he could use thermal heat to cost-effectively produce greenhouse crops.
Leo’s operation has also gone through some changes over the years, and today North Shore Greenhouses Inc. is one of the leading producers of living herbs as well as potted herbs and European cucumbers. Leo serves as president of the firm, while his wife, Suzette, is vice president and chief financial officer.
Though Hollandia and North Shore are separate business entities, they collaborate in various marketing endeavors, and the family ties remain strong. As mentioned, Leo and his wife run North Shore, while Pete, his two sisters — Ellen and Karin — and his son Jake all help Hollandia run smoothly
Hollandia grew many vegetable products in the early 1990s, but 1997 gave root to what would become the firm’s signature item. That was the first year the company planted living lettuce in its greenhouses.
The hydroponically grown lettuce is harvested with roots intact and sold in a clamshell that serves as a mini-greenhouse. Pete said the quality was great and production exceeded expectations. However, the buyers weren’t biting.
Pete Overgaag, chief executive officer, said he and Sales Manager Vince Choate had to resort to some creative marketing ideas to move the crop.
“We created [point-of-sale] material and beat the bushes looking for customers,” he said.
The concept did take hold, and the rest is history.
For the past 17 years, Hollandia has honed its craft and is now a leader in the industry, producing “Live Gourmet” brand Butter lettuce, as well as Upland Cress and a three-in-one pack that features Lollo Rossa, Lollo Bionda and Red Oak Leaf sharing roots and one clamshell.
The firm has also introduced other living lettuce varieties, including a Red Butter lettuce and are currently experimenting with a roots-intact Romaine lettuce.
Today, Art Overgaag’s offspring are running a couple of successful firms utilizing the greenhouse technology his father learned almost 100 years ago.
It was this family history that Art and Magda wanted to share with their four children and grandchildren when they packed up the family in early June and headed to Holland. The group of 22 took in many sites, including attending a family reunion on Magda’s side that numbered 140, and visiting the site where Art launched his produce career 60 years ago.
Another highlight was watching the Netherlands win a World Cup game while all dressed in the country’s signature orange color. Art said it was a great experience and especially gratifying introducing some of the grandkids to a place they had never been.
While his children are successful commercial grower-shippers, Art Overgaag still exercises his green thumb. He still tends to seven acres of cherimoyas and five acres of avocados and is experimenting with growing mangos on his Carpinteria land.
“My whole life I have been a farmer,” he said.