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The Deardorff family: Generations of service to the produce industry

There has been a Deardorff on the board of directors of the Western Growers Association continuously for the past 60 years. Four generations of Deardorffs have served, starting with W.H. Deardorff in 1952, which began his five years of participation. He was followed by a son, W.W. Deardorff, who was first elected in 1958 and served for 11 years with his tenure ending in 1967. Tom Deardorff Sr. took over in 1968 and served for 33 years, including a stint as chairman of the board in 1979. In 2002, Tom Deardorff II was elected to replace his father, and he has served for the past decade, with his service also including a year as chairman in 2011.

The WGA board Ddorff010W.W. Deardorff in a risque marketing campaign, circa a group elected by district by the association’s membership. There may be no greater illustration of the Deardorffs’ place in the produce community than their election to the WGA board for the past 60 years. That feat is unmatched in the annals of WGA history and may well be unmatched anywhere in the industry.

Of course, their service to the industry did not begin and end with Western Growers. Members of the family have been involved in many other national and regional produce organizations over the years, with the late Bill Deardorff (Tom Sr.’s brother) a mainstay on the California Strawberry Advisory Board for many years. And it continues today as Tom Deardorff II joined the United Fresh Produce Association board earlier this month at the group’s convention in Dallas.

In a recent interview with The Produce News, the unassuming duo of Tom Deardorf Sr. and Tom Deardorff II discussed the family history and their philosophy about serving the industry.

Quoting his father, W.W. Deardorff, Tom Deardorff Sr. said, “My dad always said what you put into it is what you get out of it. Well, I always got more out of participating in association activities than I put in,” he said, belying his actual efforts.

Those sentiments were echoed by Tom Deardorff II, who agreed that participation in WGA and other industry associations has helped him grow tremendously as a member of the produce community.

In fact, when Tom Deardorff Sr. was asked what he missed most about the industry since retiring a decade ago, he quickly said the people and the friendships he made, though he added that he was currently preparing for a fishing trip with industry icon Andy D’Arrigo.

It seems those years of service continue paying dividends, even in retirement.

It all began in Los Angeles

In 1937, W.H. Deardorff and his son W.W. Deardorff were industry veterans working for the Randolph Marketing Co. At that time, W.H. Deardorff was 51 and his son Ddorff005W.W. Deardorff in a tomato shed, circa 1949.was 27 — and the timing was perfect to launch their own firm. The produce industry was different then, as there were many distributors while the grower-shipper concept was still in its infancy. Growers, for the most part, grew the product and relied on distributors to sell it.

The two Deardorffs launched the W.H. Deardorff Co. with a Los Angeles address and several celery deals ranging from Chula Vista in the south to the fields of West Los Angeles, which were fertile at the time.

Though much has changed in the industry over the years, then and now, celery has always been one of Deardorff’s signature crops.

In forming the company, W.H. Deardorff established himself as the man in charge of running the firm, handling the contracts and doing all the other things that are necessary for keeping the lights on and the suppliers paid.

W.W. Deardorff, for a lack of a better title, was the field man who put together the deals with the growers.

Neither man was particularly adept at Ddorff012W.H. Deardorff, W.W. Deardorff, Bill Deardorff and Tom Deardorff, with a Chevy salesman.sales, so soon after opening they hired veteran Grigsby Jackson to sell those celery crops and the other vegetables that they represented.

Mr. Jackson was an integral part of the operation, so much so that he became a full partner in 1945 and the company name was changed to the Deardorff-Jackson Co. That moniker remained on the company letterhead for most of the next 60 years, even long after Mr. Jackson hung up his telephone and passed the sales mantle to Bill Deardorff in the mid-1960s.

“Jackson had quite a national following in the produce industry, so we kept the name for many years,” said Tom Deardorff Sr. “Probably a lot longer than we needed to.”

The Tustin facility

That first generation of Deardorffs made a decision in the early 1950s to build a warehouse in Orange County in the community of Tustin.

“Every generation gets to build a new cooler,” quipped Tom Deardorff II, who is currently deeply involved in the new facility that the firm is scheduled to open within a couple of months.

In the 1950s, Tustin seemed to be a logical move. The facility was built on a railhead and it was somewhat centrally located between the deals in southern San Diego County and the northern deals in West Los Angeles, as well as Ventura County, where the Deardorff-Jackson Ddorff009Workers in a tomato packingshed in Carpinteria, CA.Co. was also sourcing product.

The firm incorporated in the 1950s, but like much of America, it was a time of building from within. Business was good but stayed on an even keel.

The next generation

Probably the most important event of the 1950s was the decisions by both Bill and Tom Deardorff Sr. to follow in the footsteps of their father and grandfather. Bill Deardorff went to Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo and studied ag business, so he was on the produce industry track. Bill Deardorff, who was born in 1935, joined the company on a full-time basis in the late 1950s. He had an affinity for sales and began working under Mr. Jackson in the sales department.

Tom Deardorff Sr. was in business school at UCLA and was about halfway through when he decided that the family business looked good. He finished his education, served a short stint in the military and joined the Deardorff-Jackson Co. in 1960. Unlike his brother, but similar to his father and grandfather, Tom Deardorff Sr. didn’t consider himself a salesman.

“You either have that innate ability or you don’t. I didn’t,” he said.

Tom Deardorff began working with his grandfather, W.H. Deardorff, in the administrative side of the business.

Another member of the firm’s senior management who deserves mention is Durston Williams, who is Tom Deardorff Sr.’s uncle. Mr. Williams was part of the family business for many years, preceding Bill and Tom Deardorff’s employment and outlasting both of the two founding Deardorffs. He worked most closely with W.W. Deardorff and took over that field man role when W.W. Deardorff became inactive in the mid-1970s.

In the 1960s, there were many members of the management team available to usher the firm into what was truly a new era.

The move to Oxnard

Tom Deardorff Sr. said that the building of the facility in Tustin in the 1950s was done with the thought that the company might someday relocate to that agricultural-centric community.

A post-war building boom was going on around Los Angeles and it was obvious that agriculture would not survive in the metropolitan area. Farms were going out and houses were going in.

“We did look south and considered Tustin,” Tom Deardorff Sr. said, “but we thought better of it and decided to move north instead.”

That proved to be a very prudent decision. Orange County still had lots of agriculture in the 1960s, but within a decade or two most of that was gone. The area is still home to some agriculture but certainly urbanization hit Orange County much sooner than Ventura County.

To put a number on it, Oxnard is probably at least 40 years behind Orange County in terms of housing developments. Today, Tom Deardorff II, who is in his early 40s, believes the community will continue to thrive as a produce-growing region at least through the end of his career.

“I think it will sustain my generation,” he said. “Beyond that, I couldn’t tell you.”

But in the 1960s when the Deardorffs made their move, it was the right decision.

“We started slowly,” Tom Deardorff Sr. said. “We built an office up here but maintained our office in the Los Angeles area for quite a few years.”

In fact, W.H. Deardorff, who lived into his 80s, kept his home in the L.A. area and Ddorff014W.W. Deardorff, Durston Williams and Tom Deardorff inspecting strawberries in Oxnard, CA, circa 1972.made an almost daily commute to Oxnard for several years.

The shift from distributor

to grower-shipper

When the company first moved to Oxnard, it could still be classified as a distributor. Again, that was a common business model at the time. But it was in the 1960s that more and more growers started to get bigger, and with size came the opportunity to sell their own product, cutting out the middleman.

“We saw this gradual transition,” said Tom Deardorff Sr. “So we started to shift as well.”

It started with one lone strawberry farm. By that time, Deardorff-Jackson had expanded its product line with tomatoes and strawberries also playing a prominent role. In fact, Bill Deardorff was the firm’s strawberry expert.

“We knew DSCN2076Scott Deardorff, Tom Deardorff Sr. and Tom Deardorff II.that to survive we had to get into the growing business,” Tom Deardorff Sr. said.

The management team bought a strawberry farm when it had the opportunity, but not before going to each of its growers and letting them know what it was doing. The company still relied on those independent growers.

“We wanted them to know that we didn’t want to compete against them, but we had to in order to survive,” Tom Deardorff Sr. said.

It was a good move because when those growers wanted to retire, they knew they could sell their farm to the Deardorffs.

Today, Tom Deardorff II said that about 75 percent of the firm’s production comes from its own farms, with 25 percent from outside growers. He is happy with that mix and said it has been a while since the company has bought any new ranches. With the recession of the past several years, one would think that farmland could have been purchased at bargain prices.

“That hasn’t been the case,” said Tom Deardorff II. “If anything, the price for farmland has increased over the past few years.”

Supply and demand is the culprit, he said. Although urbanization is moving slowly in Ventura County, it is on the rise. And no one is creating any more farmland.

Another important milestone in the evolution of the Deardorff-Jackson Co. was the purchase of Highland Ranch in the San Clemente area of California in 1979. That purchase greatly increased the company’s ownership of land and also firmly established tomatoes as one of its top two crops.

Strawberries had gained much popularity with the Deardorffs, but they started to shift away from that production some time in the early 1980s. Today, the company still has a presence in the strawberry business, but it is much less than it was when Bill Deardorff was running that show.

An untimely death

The transition from the third generation to the fourth was no doubt hastened by the untimely death of Bill Deardorff at the age of 58. It was 1993 and Bill and Tom Deardorff, along with Durston Williams, were running the company.

Bill Deardorff’s son, Scott, was involved in the business, as was Tom Deardorff’s son, Chris. Tom Deardorff II, however, was finishing up his undergraduate work at the University of Southern California and contemplating a career in law as he entered law school.

“Bill and I worked very well together,” said Tom Deardorff Sr. “We got along really well, but probably the main reason was we didn’t tread on each other’s domain. We might not have agreed on everything, but he made the decisions for his side of the business and I made them for my side. As you can imagine, we had a lot of interchange on a daily basis.”

Tom Deardorff Sr. was greatly affected by the death of his brother, and he had to make decisions quickly to keep the business thriving.

A succession plan had not been devised with the two brothers still in their 50s. Mr. Williams was a great help as a partner in the firm and helped the company continue to move forward, according to Tom Deardorff Sr.

“We were very fortunate to have David Cook here, who is still our sales manager today,” said Tom Deardorff Sr. “He had to step in and take over sales and he did. I give him an awful lot of credit.”

But maybe the biggest legacy of Bill Deardorff’s death is how it affected Tom Deardorff Sr.’s future with the company. “It was a big influence on why I retired at the age of 63,” he said. “I had a brother that passed away at 58 and both my father and grandfather basically worked until they died. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to go have some fun.”

Today, as he approaches age 75, Tom Deardorff Sr. has greatly enjoyed his 11 years of retirement. He keeps busy with residences in the desert, Newport Beach and Camarillo, and he and his wife love their roles as grandparents.

“In fact, next week when I go to the United convention, he’ll be babysitting,” Tom Deardorff II said in late April.

“I don’t regret retiring at all,” said Tom Deardorff Sr.

Of course, he noted that he was able to retire because the company was in very good hands. “I wouldn’t have retired if I didn’t believe that.”

The current generation

Scott Deardorff, who is approaching 50, was heading toward a produce career while he was in college, and joined the business soon thereafter. Tom Deardorff II finished law school and practiced law for several years before giving the company a try in his late 20s, beginning in 1999. He was soon hooked and making plans to make it a career. He and his cousin, Scott, are now the two owners and work together very well just as their fathers did.

“I succeeded my dad and I handle operations and I oversee sales and marketing,” said Tom Deardorff II. “Scott is more on the finance side, and he has been very involved in our cooling and packing operations. In fact, right now he is out getting an award from the city [of Oxnard] for our new cooler and how ‘green’ we have made it.”

Like his father, Tom Deardorff II has a low-key manner about him and he would seem to manage in a similar style.

“A lot of people see characteristics that are similar to my father’s and say we carry ourselves in a similar fashion,” he said.

Both Deardorffs appear proud of the comparison.

Tom Deardorff II said that his goal as president was to come in and not to change things for change sake but to make changes as needed.

“Our company has always changed to adapt to the changes in the industry and we are still doing that,” he said. “When my father retired, we had a great team in place and we were ready. Our sales staff is very experienced, with most of them having been with us for at least 15 years. At that point, I was the youngest guy on the team.”

Of course, building the new facility, which has been on the drawing board for many years, is the biggest change underway at Deardorff Family Farms, which has been the company name for the past half-dozen years.

Tom Deardorff II is a bit reluctant to talk about this new state-of-the-art facility, as he wants to wait until the doors are open and it’s up and running, displaying maybe a little superstition.

“If you would have asked me several months ago, I would have said we’d be open by now,” he said. “Now I say in a couple of months for sure. Let’s talk about the facility when we open it up.”

But he is not reluctant at all to talk about the other relatively new direction for the firm, and that is the development of an organic department.

Tom Deardorff II said that celery and tomatoes have always been the top two crops, and the company has almost always had a third area of sales. For a long time, it was the strawberry crop. Today, the organic crops — taken as one department — offer that added sales opportunity.

Currently, about 25 percent of the firm’s production is organic and Tom Deardorff II sees that percentage growing over time.

“We plan to grow the whole company, but I do think we will see faster growth in the organic as we transition more acreage into organic and even add new acreage,” he said.

Tom Deardorff II said that it is a natural progression for the company and for the Oxnard district. As farmers compete for land with developers, higher-value crops have to be the order of the day. Production has moved east away from the coast as some new land has been developed, but wherever it is, the key to profitability are crops that command a greater return. Organics fall in that category.

Celery and tomatoes —

coming full circle

While Deardorff Family Farms has changed in many ways over the years, it is very interesting to note that the crop that launched the company 75 years ago is still the mainstay for the fourth-generation owners.

“Celery consumption has flatlined — it certainly isn’t going up,” Tom Deardorff II said. “But this district remains the only district [in the country] that can continue to produce celery for an extended period of time during the year. Our climate gives us an advantage, and I don’t see that changing for at least 10-15 years.”

In planning to build the new cooler, Tom Deardorff II said the team had to project 15 years out to make sure it would pencil out. Celery, he said, will continue to be one of the firm’s top crops for the foreseeable future.

Tom Deardorff II isn’t quite as sure about tomatoes. The tomato category has shown tremendous growth over the past decade, and the Deardorff Family Farm president said it is a challenge to remain relevant as a seasonal shipper of field-grown vine-ripe tomatoes.

“At one point we were the premium product, but now we are in a precarious position as being in the middle between field-grown mature greens and the higher-end hothouse tomatoes,” he said. “Shelf space [at retail] is being squeezed.”

While Mr. Deardorff isn’t certain of the future of tomatoes for his firm, the company is taking great steps to be relevant. It has just recently been named West Coast producer of the proprietary Tasti-Lee variety offered by Bejo Seeds.

“They have done great with it on the East Coast and we are hoping to duplicate that for the category on the West Coast,” he said. “We will have it from July to November this year and the long term goal is to have it year round.”

The future

Both Scott Deardorff and Tom Deardorff II have children, but Tom’s are still very young and Scott’s two are in high school and college.

Like their fathers before them, they make no assumptions that their kids will follow in their footsteps, but there is no doubt that keeping the family produce name alive would be a good thing for the industry at large.