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Marriott adds another branch to family's lineage at Family Tree

For Duncan Marriott, a rising star at Family Tree Farms in Reedley, CA, the decision to make the produce industry his career was an easy one.

?I was born into it " I didn?t have a choice," the 28-year-old commodity broker said with a laugh. "And don?t get me wrong " I love it."

Mr. Marriott can trace his produce roots back well over 100 years, and his personal family tree branches into many areas of the business.

?My great-great grandfather was David Gamble, and back in 1892, the Gamble brothers and the Robinson brothers founded a merchant commission house in Minneapolis," he said.

Gamble Robinson was one of the early wholesale produce warehouses in Minneapolis, and in 1941, through a merger with a West Coast firm, became Pacific Gamble Robinson, a nationwide produce wholesaler which owned the "Snoboy? produce label. Mr. Gamble was also a founding member of the United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association.

Mr. Marriott, originally from Minneapolis, moved to California in 1982 when his father was relocated to the Snoboy office in Kingsburg, CA. It just so happens that every male descendant of the Gamble Robinson line has been involved in the produce industry. In fact, his brother, Alex, 27, works for Wildwood Produce in Kingsburg; another brother is completing his degree at the University of Oregon and has his eye on a possible future in the business.

Mr. Marriott began his own career at the tender age of 13, "sweeping the Francisco dock just off the L.A. terminal for my dad," he said.

His father, Simon Marriott, would bring Duncan and his brothers with him when he worked the market. "He would give us a few dollars. We probably made more of a mess than we cleaned, but he always paid us and we got lunch."

Simon Marriott died in an automobile accident in 1990. "He was a lifelong veteran of the produce industry and one of those characters in this business that make it so enjoyable," his son said. "I hope one day to be thought of as one of those great characters."

Mr. Marriott got more than a market lunch out of his early experiences; he gained an appreciation for the special relationships vital to the industry's success that he values to this day.

?I still talk to some of the people who knew my dad back when. It's what makes this business so special," said Mr. Marriott, married since 1997 and a father himself.

Forging new relationships is one of the more rewarding parts of the job for this fifth-generation produce man, who rose through the ranks from packing to sales during his 16 years in the business. He now applies himself to every facet of Family Tree Farms? operations, "from sales to the field to packing," he said.

The vertically integrated company, which is owned by the David Jackson family, who are sixth-generation farmers themselves, handles its product "from the dirt "til it packs," Mr. Marriott said. The firm specializes in a line of white flesh peaches, plums and Pluots, a cross between an apricot and a plum. "It's got a really sweet taste," Mr. Marriott said of the hybrid. The company also grows plums and yellow flesh peaches and nectarines. Flavor is another issue dear to Mr. Marriott?s heart. "A good day is any day a new partner-retailer shares your vision of bringing top-quality fruit to the end customer," he said. "It's not all about price " I think people realize that taste is the most important factor."

There are rewards that are more tangible as well. In December, Mr. Marriott was named Family Tree Farms? most improved employee of 2004 from among the almost 5,000 full-time and seasonal workers in the running for that honor. The award recognized his accomplishments in sales, creating new partnerships and general output.

Receiving the award was a special moment for Mr. Marriott, who appreciates the care that Family Tree Farms has taken in nurturing his career. "They make me feel like family," he said.

He wishes more members of his generation were aware of the benefits the industry has to offer. "I think we need more young people in the business, and I think the industry needs to do a better job of bringing them in and showing them the rewards " showing them why we work the 12-hour days (and that it's not all like that)," he said.

A 1997 graduate of Reedley College with an associate?s degree in agricultural business, Mr. Marriott noted that one advantage of his career in produce is that it has enabled Stacie, his wife of eight years, to stay home full-time with their two children, Trevor, 5, and Halie, 3. The family lives in Kingsburg.

Youthful energy is just one of the positives Mr. Marriott brings to Family Tree Farms, and it manifests itself in more ways than one.

An avid weight-lifter, he was instrumental in getting a weight room set up at the Kingsburg facility, and joked that he has a bit of a second career as a trainer, advising co-workers on diet and exercise regimens. "It's like we have our own Gold?s Gym," he said. The set-up includes 3,000 pounds of free weights and a variety of weight machines. "Everybody uses it, from the field workers to the owners," he said.

Mr. Marriott plays as hard as he works. His other interests include wakeboarding and mountain biking. Often, he and friends from work will take a midday break to wakeboard on the nearby King River. "It's a nice break in the middle of those long, hot August days when we might be here from five in the morning till six or later at night. I can have my boat there and have my shorts on and be in the water in five minutes," he said.

Biking is another of his escapes. Mr. Marriott has competed in the Sea Otter Classic, a prestigious spring cycling event held in Monterey, CA, the last couple of years, but will miss it this year to fit in one of his growing number of business trips.

?I'm on the road a lot. I traveled to 16 states last year," he said. "I like meeting our partners face-to-face, putting a face to the name."

Sometimes he takes advantage of a professional outing to bring along Stacie for a bit of a grownup getaway. Seattle and Los Angeles are two of the couple?s favorite spots for mixing business with pleasure. Phoenix is another special place to Mr. Marriott. "It's just really beautiful there, and there?s a lot to do."

Always on the go, the busy Mr. Marriott also sets aside time to give back to the community through his church, the First Baptist Church of Kingsburg, where he is the games director for Awana, a youth group for boys and girls ages six to 10. "We play things like a version of "Fear Factor," where kids have to eat gummy worms." It sounds appetizing enough, except that the worms are eaten after being retrieved and passed along by another player with his or her feet.

Mr. Marriott makes sure he enjoys plenty of family time as well. "The payoff of those long summer hours is the [lighter] winters, when I have more time to spend with my wife and kids," he said.

And might his kids follow in the family footsteps? After all, the produce gene runs on both sides: Stacie?s dad is a grower of peaches, nectarines and plums in Kingsburg.

?Well, right now, Trevor wants to be a hammerhead shark when he grows up and Halie wants to be Princess Cinderella," he laughed. "But Trevor is fascinated by the forklifts and other heavy equipment when he visits me here, so we?ll see. Maybe someday."