Ask Rick Hilfiker what his favorite part of the day is and he’ll tell you it’s watching the early morning sunrises and the late-evening sunsets. He makes it a point to get up each morning at 5 to start his day — as most farmers do — so he can have enough time to watch the sun come up.
In a recent interview at the office of his farming operations in Holtville, he explains he never ceases to be amazed by the spectacular shades of bronze, orange and yellows, and that sunsets are just as good--maybe even better--with shades of red added to the mix.
Something else is also added during the evening: the companionship of DeeAnn, DeeDee to her friends, his wife of 38 years. Together, glasses of wine in hand, they sit on the back porch of their home to watch the celestial show put on by the sun at day’s end.
Rick says he sees the glory of God reflected in sunrises and sunsets and as he walks his fields seeing the first signs of life appear: newly sprouted green growths garnishing the brown earth. At times like this, it’s not unusual for his workers to see him kneel, bow his head, and give thanks for the many blessings he has received. He says he knows he owes them to God. The sign posted in front of his office with the name of his company reflects this: Sunrise Acres.
As a boy, he recalls, the farm was his life. At that point, it belonged to his father, Julius Hilfiker, who taught him how to work. When school was in session Rick remembers being picked up by the bus in the morning and then, immediately after school, being dropped off in the afternoon and going straight to his chores. Though he remembers playing ball with his siblings, and all of them finding ways to entertain themselves, chores came first. By about age seven he was already helping to clean up, rake hay, and mow lawns. As he grew, he graduated to feeding the cattle.
As Rick speaks in his office he exudes an aura of the calm efficiency with which he runs his business. When interrupted twice during an interview, each time by an employee asking questions, he patiently takes his time to answer and, if needed, explain something.
Conversations are conducted in a jovial manner. One employee, maybe a supervisor, walks out of the office saying, “Hey, Rick, can I get some candy?” He points to a bowl DeeDee keeps on a counter near the door. After getting a “sure” from Rick, he reaches in and takes a handful. His hand is big, so it’s a big handful.
High turn-over is nonexistent at Sunrise Acres.
“My workers are like family,” Rick notes of his staff.
He’s had some employees for so long that several of them are now on the verge of retirement. He takes an interest in their welfare and his loyalty to them is returned tenfold. When he’s outside working with them, he speaks to his Hispanic workers in what he calls “farm Spanish.” He and DeeDee don’t think twice about attending every quiñceanera, wedding, and funeral to which they are invited. His parents, he explains, taught him to respect his fellow man, and that meant everyone, regardless of color, race, creed, or social standing.
His grandfather, Sam Hilfiker, came to America from Switzerland in 1917, passing through Ellis Island just like millions of other immigrants of the day. Somehow or another he ended up in Holtville. Or maybe, as mentioned in the Pioneers Park Museum publication, A History of the Imperial Valley, he came upon “. . . hearing of the opportunities the Valley held, through word-of-mouth, family, friends and even newspaper advertisements, offering undeveloped farmland at reasonable prices.”
Whatever the case may be, Sam arrived in Imperial Valley, as the story goes, not being able to find lodgings or, as Rick says in an offhanded way, “Maybe not having a nickel in his pocket.”
As such, he decided to look around for what he could find. He spotted a creamery in the very location where the AutoZone store is today at 390 E. Fifth St., and noticed there were several small buildings in back. He went into one of them and fell asleep. At 4 a.m. he was awakened by a man’s voice asking him, “Do you know how to milk cows?”
After replying in the affirmative, he was given a lift to a 10-acre dairy farm on the south side of Holtville on Vencil Road. As Providence would have it, the farm was located on the very same plot of land where, one day, Sunrise Acres would stand.
Sam Hilfiker worked on the farm for a year or two and then, following the pattern of many Swiss in the area, went back to his native country for his wife, Rosa. He soon returned and continued working on the dairy farm and in 1920 his son Julius, Rick’s father, was born.
Eventually, through thrift and hard work, Sam acquired the farm. After Sam and Rosa’s death, the farm went to Julius, and it was there that he, along with his wife Rositta (not to be confused with Rosa), raised their family: Julie, Nancy, David and Rick.
Sometime during the 1940s or 1950s Julius instituted a change, a pivotal one as it turned out. He sold the cows and started growing alfalfa and other crops. To date, these are the crops being planted by Sunrise Acres.
Watch for Part 2 in the Nov. 29 edition of the Holtville Tribune.