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Berge Bulbulian, Fresno County grower who advocated for farmworkers, dies at 91

Berge Bulbulian, author of the book “The Fresno Armenians: History of Diaspora Community,” poses at his home in the summer of 2000. A lifelong farmer and a fighter for social causes, Mr. Bulbulian died Jan. 26 at age 91.
Berge Bulbulian, author of the book “The Fresno Armenians: History of Diaspora Community,” poses at his home in the summer of 2000. A lifelong farmer and a fighter for social causes, Mr. Bulbulian died Jan. 26 at age 91. ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

Berge Bulbulian was a lifelong Fresno County farmer who was proud of his heritage and fought for social causes. Mr. Bulbulian died on Jan. 26 at the age of 91.

“He was always working to make the world a better place and he had a real compassion for people who worked the land,” said Linda Bulbulian, one of his three daughters.

A wine and raisin grape farmer for 65 years, Mr. Bulbulian was a leader in several groups that advocated for small farmers and workers’ rights. He was involved in the National Land for the People, California Rural Legal Assistance and Fresno County Young Democrats.

As a member of the National Land for the People, he pushed the federal government to enforce the Reclamation Act of 1902 that limited the size of farms receiving federal subsidized water to 160 acres. Mr. Bulbulian said failing to enforce the act allowed large landowners to take advantage of the system at the expense of small farmers.

He supported the effort for farmworkers to acquire farmland and create their own cooperatives.

In the early 1980s, he spoke before a House subcommittee in support of California Rural Legal Services, an organization that provides free legal services to the poor, including migrant farmworkers.

A Fresno Bee article about his testimony quoted Mr. Bulbulian saying: “Without migrants, much of our agriculture would grind to a halt, yet they are among the most deprived of our society.”

Someone once said the most important thing on the land is the farmer’s shadow. The farmer’s shadow may be gone soon, taking with it the family farm and a way of life that has enriched this country.

Berge Bulbulian in a 1990 column for The Bee

Linda Bulbulian said her father understood the value of hard work and often worked alongside his employees, harvesting grapes. As children, the Bulbulian sisters also helped harvest the crop.

“I can remember going out after dinner when there was still sunlight to help pick up raisins,” Linda Bulbulian said. “As much as we didn’t love it at the time, those are very fond memories.”

Born in Mexicali, Mexico, Mr. Bulbulian’s family moved to Del Rey when he was 3. He graduated from Selma High School, attended Fresno State and earned a degree in philosophy from the University of California at Los Angeles. He also served in the Navy during World War II.

At one time, the family farmed 150 acres of tree fruit, wine and raisin grapes. When Mr. Bulbulian wasn’t on the farm, he was in a meeting hall or testifying before a congressional subcommittee.

Mr. Bulbulian was a frequent letter writer to The Fresno Bee and wrote a book titled “The Fresno Armenians: History of Diaspora Community.”

In 1990, he wrote a column for The Bee about his retirement and his last harvest. He wrote eloquently about missing the rhythm of the raisin harvest: the picking, the rolling of the paper bundles and placing them into bins.

Mr. Bulbulian had mixed emotions about walking away from farming after six decades.

He wrote: “I’m looking forward to leaving the farm, but I’m bothered by the likelihood I’ll sell to someone a little bigger who may sell out to someone even bigger some day.

“Someone once said the most important thing on the land is the farmer’s shadow. The farmer’s shadow may be gone soon, taking with it the family farm and a way of life that has enriched this country.”

Robert Rodriguez: 559-441-6327, @FresnoBeeBob

Berge Bulbulian

Born: Nov. 10, 1925

Died: Jan. 26, 2017

Occupation: Farmer

Survivors: Wife Alice Krikorian Bulbulian; daughters Christine Barile, Linda Bulbulian and Carol Cannon; five grandchildren

Services: None planned

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