Talking With A Legend

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Talking With A Legend

Not many people can say they lived through the Great Depression, experienced the death of a parent as a teenager, and were forced to live in an internment camp during World War II. One person who had all those experiences is George Tanimura, the patriarch of the Tanimura family and co-chairman of the board for Salinas, CA-based Tanimura & Antle.

This vegetable growing giant ranks number 2 in the West on American Vegetable Grower’s Top 100 Growers list, producing a variety of crops including its new artisan lettuce line along with other lettuces and leafy greens. The farm grows on more than 35,000 acres, shipping fresh produce throughout North America, Europe, and Asia. To produce that kind of volume, however, this industry leader has to grow the highest quality produce for the lowest price.

The Formation Of The Dynamic Duo
After World War II, George Tanimura tried his hand at a variety of ag jobs, eventually teaming up with his brothers — Tommy, Johnny (1920-2009), Bobby (1929-2006), and Charlie (1916-2000) — on a 20-acre ranch near Watsonville, CA, producing green onions.

“The onions only last so long and then the diseases start coming,” George explains. “I told my brothers that we need to plant a little lettuce. So we planted 2 acres.”

The lettuce crop on those 2 acres was sold to Bud Antle, who was part of an operation started in 1942 with his father Lester. George recalls the first lettuce sale the Tanimuras made to Bud.

“My brothers were kind of shy and they didn’t want to ask for $25 more an acre from Bud Antle,” he states. “So I asked for more. I made the first deal with Bud for $150 per acre.”

According to George, Bud tried to be a grower but realized that growing wasn’t his forte and others could produce more economically than he could, so he asked the Tanimuras to farm some of his land.

Working with Bud, the Tanimuras were farming between 300 and 400 acres and they were always profitable. Bud worked to ensure his growers always got paid, sometimes taking a loss himself, explains George. “That is how our operation grew so fast.”

Bud, who passed away in the early 1970s, is still well-known throughout the industry. “He is known as one of the most influential men of agriculture,” George adds.
In 1982, the partnership was officially formed. Today, Bud’s son Bob serves as co-chairman of the board with George, and Bob’s son Rick is the company’s CEO. Gary Tanimura, the son of George’s brother Charlie, is an executive vice president.
According to George, who has celebrated 95 birthdays, to achieve that goal requires “producing the cheapest and the best. If you don’t produce the best you aren’t going to last very long,” he says.

With the fourth generation now employed on the farm, that goal has obviously been achieved. Where did George learn how to grow superb produce using the minimum of inputs? From his father, Eijiro Tanimura, a Japanese immigrant.

Referring to him as a “lettuce man,” George says his father set up a place in Castroville and decided to make a go of farming. He recalls fondly the time his father got his first tractor.

“It was a used, beat up old thing,” George says with a laugh. “A horse could keep up with that tractor.”

On a more serious note, he adds that his father’s efforts paved the way for future generations of Tanimuras. “My father was a pioneer in lettuce, and today we are one of the largest lettuce producers.”

Overcoming Adversity

The path leading the Tanimuras to becoming a lettuce-producing giant was filled with hardships along the way. George’s mother passed away when he was 15, and his father when he was 20, and not only did he have to take over the farm, George had to care for his 12 siblings.

Four of the siblings are George’s brothers — Bobby, Johnny, Tommy, and Charlie — who all later had an equal stake in the farming operation.

“There were really tough times in the ’20s and ’30s,” he recalls. “You had to make a choice: school or eat. Wages were 15¢ an hour but you have to remember that a loaf of bread was a nickel.”

At the time George took over the family operation, they were farming about 100 acres, not all of which was lettuce. To make ends meet, the entire family had to pitch in.

“All the kids had to help out,” he says. “It isn’t like today when you have your labor force and contractors. Back then you had to find your own labor.”

Tanimura & Antle Timeline
1920s George Tanimura’s father establishes himself as a grower in Castroville, CA, producing lettuce and other crops.
1935 George’s father passes away and George takes over the operation.
1942 George is forced to stay in an internment camp and Bud Antle starts a grower/shipper operation with his father.
1947 George regroups with his brothers after the war and beings producing green onions and iceberg lettuce on a 20-acre farm in Aromas, CA.
1950s George develops an exclusive business relationship with Bud Antle.
1982 Tanimura & Antle is formed. The new company shipped 10,000 boxes of lettuce on its first day of business.
2007 Tanimura & Antle celebrates 25 years of being in business together.
2010 A hydroponic facility opens in Tennessee to grow “living lettuce,” allowing the company to branch out into specialty items.

Fallout From The War

George continued to grow the business, but things came to a grinding halt during World War II when Japanese-Americans were put in internment camps. “I thought it was going to be like Boy Scout camp and your friends and neighbors come to see you,” he says about the camp that was located in Arizona.

What he thought would be short-term dragged on for three years. Ironically, while George was held in an internment camp, his brothers were fighting for the U.S. in the war. The one positive George came away with from the internment camp was his marriage to Masaye.

Once free from the camp, he basically had to start his farming operation from scratch. Equipment and land were two necessary ingredients.

Taking the plunge, George purchased land. The highest price he paid after the war was about $650 an acre. A stark contrast to today’s prices: 1 acre near Oxnard, CA, retails for around $75,000.

Industry Highlights

George has had the privilege of participating in an industry that has seen significant changes over the years. He mentions a few advancements that played a role in the success of his operation and vegetable production in general.

- Vacuum cooling. George credits his original business partner, Bud Antle, for always looking for ways to increase efficiencies. One example is vacuum cooling. According to George, Bud was one of the first people to promote vacuum cooling, which keeps produce fresh and saves on transporation costs.

- Mechanization. In the area of harvesting, mechanized vehicles have made lettuce harvesting significantly easier, limiting the work of individuals in the field. “By saving manpower, you had an advantage over the competition,” he says.

- Irrigation. A strong proponent of drip irrigation, George says this method of irrigation will continue to greatly benefit the water-starved state of California. Not new to drip, he has been working with this irrigation method for more than 20 years. Two years ago, he recalls, California was faced with another water shortage but Tanimura & Antle was able to produce crops, thanks to its use of drip lines. “With drip, we turn it on for so many hours and then we shut it off. We don’t let it run off or evaporate too much,” he explains.

Online Exclusive: Learning From George Tanimura
Many people have worked with George Tanimura over the years. To find out what others have learned from this industry leader, click here.

George would know. The day before the phone interview with American Vegetable Grower, he was visiting Tres Pico Ranch in the San Joaquin Valley, which is referred to as “George’s Garden.” Although the ranch is nearly two hours away from where he lives, George visits the ranch at least once a week.
With innovation always top of mind, the day before the interview George was putting in a single drip line at the ranch. Usually two lines are used, but George, a pioneer like his father, was trying to cut costs and still get the same yield.

The Growing Continues

As someone who has been through many of the ups and downs of vegetable production, George says he is confident the industry will continue to grow because “vegetables are good for you and people have to eat.”

His outlook on the future of Tanimura & Antle is just as positive. In the end, however, he says an organization is only as good as its employees. The farm wouldn’t be where it is today if not for the help of people who have been on the payroll through the years.

“I never realized that a poor farm boy could make a few bucks,” he concludes. “You can’t do it yourself, though. You have to have help and you have to have good help. And we had some good help. Going back many years, there were guys who really worked hard for us and we can’t forget those people.”

Rosemary Gordon is editor of American Vegetable Grower, a Meister Media Worldwide publication.

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