Summer rains this year resulted in so many watermelons in the Hempstead, Texas, area that growers David and Michael DiIorio couldn’t keep up. To extend their processing facilities, they erected a huge white tent next to their open-air farm stand.
“People around town kept asking us when the circus would open,” laughs their sister Cheryl DiIorio Cooke, another partner in the family business, DiIorio Farms and Roadside Market. “We rented the tent in July because we had such a huge number of watermelons at one time, and we needed the extra room to grade and package them.”
After 2011’s devastating drought, the close-knit DiIorios, who have farmed and ranched for generations, welcomed the whopping harvest of watermelons.
“Last year was our worst ever,” recalls matriarch Angelina DiIorio, 77, who’s still active in the business and keeps up with 10 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. “Maybe that’s why we’ve done so well this year. God’s giving us a break.”
No matter whether the season’s bountiful or lean, the DiIorios work tirelessly from dawn to dusk all year long, on the land and in their store. “Is farming in our blood?” David muses. “It has to be. No one else would put in 10- to 14-hour days like we do.”
Deep Farming Heritage
The family’s deep love of land dates to before the turn of the century, when DiIorio ancestors farmed along the Tiber River east of Rome, Italy. Appropriately, DiIorio — pronounced DEE-yoreo — means “of the river” in Italian. It was in 1900 that great-grandfather Nick DiIorio immigrated to Pennsylvania at the age of nine with his family.
Eleven years later, the family packed up and moved to Waller County, northwest of Houston, Texas, where they bought farmland at the bargain price of 50 cents an acre. Soon they were supplying fruits and vegetables to local stores. They also sold produce from a small market in Hempstead.
“Dad told us, ‘When the time is right, be in the field.’ The early bird gets the worm. He also told us to market directly to the customer and retail stores; cut out the middle man and the broker.” – Michael DiIorio
Nick soon married, and he and his wife, Clara, raised eight children. Their youngest, Joseph “Billy,” farmed with his father, raising vegetables and cattle. In 1954, Billy married Angelina Riemer, and they had four children: Cheryl, Michael and David, who are involved in the family farm, and Suzanne DiIorio Sodolak, who works with her husband’s family-owned tire business in nearby Sealy.
Nick and Billy opened DiIorio Farms and Roadside Market on U.S. Highway 290 east of Hempstead in 1956. The summer-only produce stand continued to grow, eventually becoming a year-round operation. In 1982, the DiIorios built their present store and expanded it the following year to make space for DiIorio All Occasion Flowers, a shop that Angelina and Cheryl oversee. Michael DiIorio also runs a second, smaller produce stand on Texas Highway 6 north of Hempstead.
Before his untimely death in 1999, Billy raised the grand champion watermelon at the 1998 Hempstead Watermelon Festival. His winning entry tipped the scales at 128 pounds and sold at auction for $5,000. To this day, no one has beat his record.
Four Generations With Texas AgFinance
Like her husband, Angelina grew up in a farming family, and she is the reason the DiIorios have financed the operation with Texas AgFinance in Brenham, Texas, for 57 years. “My father, Antone Riemer, did business with Texas Ag, so that’s how I knew about them,” explains Angelina, who was raised in nearby Waller.
In fact, documents from Riemer’s first loan in 1951 — as well as the DiIorios’ first loan papers from 1955 — are still on file with the customer-owned lending cooperative.
“For a long time, we’ve financed the DiIorios’ cattle, watermelon and corn operations,” says Charles Holtkamp, vice president and branch manager. “They’re wonderful, hardworking people.”
Years ago, the family applied for a farm loan through a local bank. “It was heck because we had to redo all the paperwork,” David says. “So we never did that again. We’ve been with Texas Ag so long that they know our operations as well as we do! Whenever Charles retires, I hope I do, too.”
Most recently, David’s son, 20-year-old Justin, became the fourth DiIorio generation to join Texas AgFinance, when he obtained financing to start his own cattle herd. So far, the Texas A&M University student has 20 head.
Going 12 Months of the Year
At the DiIorios’ open-air warehouse, a worn-out school bus loaded with watermelons backs up to a loading dock. After a well-earned lunch break, workers unload melons from the seatless bus and send them down a rubber conveyor belt, where Michael and a different crew sort the fruit into large cardboard cartons.
“It’s slow here right now,” David says, as a front-end loader zips back and forth, moving and stacking boxes of watermelons. “When we had the tent up, we averaged 14 semi-truckloads a day! During peak season, there’s not an inch of space open in the warehouse here; it’s all filled up with cartons.”
This year, the DiIorios planted 600 leased acres of watermelons, their main crop. The family also grows corn, hay, soybeans, pumpkins and winter vegetables, which they sell in their own markets and to retail outlets, such as H.E.B., Kroger, Safeway and Wal-Mart. In addition, they run a cow-calf operation.
“We don’t ever stop,” David says. “We’re doing something 12 months out of the year.”
By October, Michael’s crop of pumpkins — 15 varieties planted across 80 acres — will be ready to harvest. His most popular pumpkin is a jack-o-lantern variety. Others include mini pumpkins, Sugar Pie, Big Mac, Fairytale and Spook, a white variety.
Spreading Their Risk
In all, the DiIorios farm approximately 2,000 acres leased in four counties. They also run 500 cows on 3,000 acres. Winter yearlings number 300 head, and calves are sold in the spring.
“Our father always taught us to diversify,” David says. “Never put all your eggs in one basket. So that’s why we run cattle and grow so many different crops. So we can spread out our risk. Our crops are also scattered across a lot of fields because you never know when and where a hailstorm might hit. That spreads out our risk, too.”
Billy DiIorio shared other keys to success with his children, as well. “Dad told us, ‘When the time is right, be in the field,’” Michael says. “The early bird gets the worm. He also told us to market directly to the customer and retail stores; cut out the middle man and the broker.”
For more information, visit DiIorioFarms.com.
Angelina DiIorio, left, and Cheryl Cooke in their flower shop
Relaxed and comfortable, Marvin Schiel of Decker Prairie, Texas, reclines in a wooden rocking chair, one of several lined up and priced to sell in front of the DiIorio Farms and Roadside Market. Inside, his wife, Rhonda, and their grandson are browsing bins piled with packaged beans, pasta, flour and cornmeal, along with assorted fresh fruits and vegetables.
Across the concrete floor, more shelves and racks stock seasonings, canned goods, nuts, candies, pickles, and the farm’s jams and jellies. Refrigerated cases hold soft drinks, meats and cheeses. The market, open daily from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., also sells birdseed, livestock feed, outdoor cookers and outdoor furniture. Inside DiIorio All Occasion Flowers, customers can order floral arrangements and browse gift items, such as scented candles, handbags, gift baskets, Texas souvenirs and jewelry.
“You have to stop here on the way home,” Rhonda says, pausing by the corn. “I’ve shopped here nearly all my life.”
In her purse, a cellphone jangles. “Hello? Yes, we’re at the market. Need any pasta? Rice, too? Okay!” She drops the phone back in her bag. “That was my daughter. See, I was taking orders for her!”
Generations of shoppers like the Schiels have come to rely on the DiIorio family, whose years in business stretch across more than a century.
“It’s a hard life,” Angelina DiIorio says, smiling, “but it’s so rewarding, too.”