From sunrise to sunset, Melvin Rettig is hard at work
Melvin Rettig does more hard work in one day than some people do in a week, month or even year.
Rettig’s job requires him to put in physical labor seven days a week from sunup to sundown beginning in the early spring and ending in the late fall.
Now don’t be mistaken. Rettig doesn’t mind the work and hours one bit because the farmer is the owner of Rettig Farms on Orchard Mesa.
“I don’t think I have many pressures,” Rettig said. “I don’t have the pressure of working for someone else, although there are some pressures from time to time, but over the years I don’t worry about things too much anymore.”
Aside from higher-ranking officials in his four years in the U.S. Air Force and professors during his time in college, the only bosses Rettig has ever had are himself and his father, Gerald, who bought the farmland on 32 Road in 1935. Melvin Rettig and his five siblings grew up on the same land he lives and farms on today. Although Rettig’s childhood home now serves as his office, the labor and sweat he puts into the soil haven’t changed much.
“I was 5 years old driving a tractor for spraying,” Rettig said. “I went to Grand Junction High School, and we didn’t do anything except work — had to work on the farm all the time.”
After graduating from high school, Rettig spent the next 10 years bouncing between Mesa College; the Air Force, working on autopilot systems during the Vietnam War; and earning his agriculture engineering degree from Colorado State University. Rettig’s emphasis at CSU was irrigation and drainage, and when it came to deciding his next step, he knew where he belonged.
“Even though I have my degree in engineering, I decided the farm is where I’d rather be,” Rettig said. “I’d rather be out here on the end of a shovel than sitting behind a desk.”
In 1976, Rettig returned to the Grand Valley and took over the farm while his wife, Maurine, began a 30-year teaching career at Central High School.
Early in Rettig’s time back on the farm there was a lot of trial and error.
“We used to have 12 acres of apricots, and it was the biggest apricot orchard in the valley,” Rettig said. “The first year I was back farming the apricots were always a challenge because they bloom too early so by now we’ve taken out all the apricots. I also lost two acres of peaches I put in. I had those in about 10 years and they winter-killed in the late ’80s.”
After years of struggling to keep fruit trees alive, Rettig has transitioned his farm into what’s made it successful today. Rettig Farms is 90 percent vegetables, ranging from tomatoes to sweet corn to peppers.
“We are diversified so that if we have a bad crop on something one year, something else will probably be a good crop,” Rettig said. “But I’ve never hit a good crop on everything in one year. Something is always down.”
Some crops tend to be more successful than others because of Rettig’s biggest rivals: weather, disease and insects.
Rettig said his biggest cash crop is tomatoes, but added that consistent growth is hard to come by.
“There is a curly top virus where you never know when we are going to have a good or bad year on it,” Rettig said. “It’s spread by a tiny beet leafhopper that winters in California and Arizona, and we get the strong winds in late April where the insects will ride those winds all the way up here, and it takes them about a second to infect the plant.”
Any defense against disease or weather is usually done by Rettig himself. During the summer growing season he gets help, but it isn’t much.
“We have some help but we are small,” Rettig said. “Some people have 20 to 30 guys working at a time, and we have two or three. So we do a lot of stuff ourselves. I just assume I’ll stay hands on. I never really wanted to grow and get big.”
Like athletes who continue careers because love of the game, Rettig has stayed on the farm his whole life. He’s had chances to get out, but never wanted to.
“We could have sold out 25 years ago in the early ’80s in the oil shale boom and never have to work again,” Rettig said. “But it wasn’t the money; it was the enjoyment of being out here. I’m going to die out here on the end of a shovel.”
But the good news for fans of Rettig’s vegetables is that the farm will continue on. Rettig’s youngest child of three, Matthew, is serving in the Air Force. As Melvin took over for his father, the plan is for Matthew to take over for Melvin.
“He’s planning on making the Air Force a 20-year career, and he’s my farm kid so he plans on coming back and taking over for me,” Rettig said. “That would be nice. My dad was glad to see when I came back and took over.”
Rettig added that it’s his customers who keep him logging long hours.
“I could quit. (Maurine’s) got retirement, and I start drawing Social Security, so I could go all alfalfa and still make just about as much money,” Rettig said. “But it’s the people, my customers, that beg and say don’t quit. That’s the most satisfying thing right now.”