It’s 5:00 am on August 18, 1962, and the City of Los Banos is already buzzing with excitement in anticipation of President John F. Kennedy’s visit to their little community for the groundbreaking ceremony of the San Luis Dam. Nine-year-old Stephen Patricio is getting ready to hop on his bicycle to make the 15-mile trek with his cousins up to the site to see this monumental event. Just as he was about to put pedal to the metal, his mother stopped him, notifying him that he had to be at least 10 years old to bike to the dam. He was two months shy.
“I was madder than a hornet,” Patricio said, and throughout the ceremony (which he traveled to by car), he stuck to his guns and remained passionately upset about not being able to bike up with his cousins. “It was out of principle, considering I was almost 10,” he laughed.
This is the same grit and passion that has propelled Patricio to help advance the agriculture industry by leaps and bounds. Almost everyone who knows him mentions his dedication to the ag community—especially when it comes to water rights and food safety. One thing that might surprise people, given his influential leadership in the industry, is that Patricio’s roots are not ag-based.
Though he was born and raised in the farming-rich town of Los Banos, Patricio still considers himself a “city boy.” His grandfather opened a small grocery store in 1922, and eventually, his parents took over the store. The family was not one of farmers. “I had a lot of farming around me and many friends who farmed dairy, but we owned and operated the store.”
Patricio left his hometown for Santa Clara University, where he graduated with an accounting degree in 1974. He immediately headed to San Jose to work for Arthur Young and Company, a national CPA firm, specializing in accounting for high-tech electronics. Not long after, family friend Jess Telles reached out looking for a young CPA for his large-scale farm. Patricio was not sure that getting into ag was something he wanted to do but agreed to take the position on a trial basis.
The young accountant spent 99 percent of his day inside the TRI Produce office as a “bean counter,” learning all aspects of the business from the ground up. After 15 years as the chief financial officer, he was asked to also become the general manager of the melon operation, which is when he started working closely with growers on a daily basis. Patricio quickly learned that the key to success was to work with growers, not just for them.
“They are proud of what they do, and they become farmers because they want to make their own choices. Whatever decision they made, I tried to support them,” he said. “This became the mantra of my life.”
In 1993, the TRI entities were split and sold, and Telles and Patricio launched a different type of venture. Their idea was to have a company act as a true resource for growers. Westside Produce was created to be, and still is, fully dedicated to acting as the liaison for growers to bring product from field to marketplace in the most efficient way possible. At no point in time would the company start growing their own melons. Westside Produce is a place where growers know their product does not have to compete for sales with the owner’s crop.
Between streamlining TRI Produce’s melon business and launching Westside Produce, Patricio experienced his first melon food safety crisis. In 1992, the Centers for Disease Control announced that people were getting sick from eating cantaloupe. The news spread like wildfire and all sales stopped. New orders were not being taken and stores were pulling existing orders.
“It was my job to go tell six to seven hundred people to stop picking, pack up their stuff and go home. The crews looked at me asking ‘how long’ and it made me sick to my stomach that I just really didn’t know,” said Patricio. “This was an epiphany point for me. I vowed to make food safety a priority in my life.”
Not being able to respond to workers, consumers and media with scientifically-based research and knowledge about food safety and melons was a huge mistake for the industry, according to Patricio. He started working with University of California, Davis to conduct a food safety analysis of melons. The research, which was funded by industry, resulted in the development of the first “Commodity Specific Food Safety Guidance for Cantaloupes.” This guidance was distributed and recommended to the California cantaloupe industry in the early 2000s and became the first-ever mandatory compliance program in 2012.
Additionally, during his chairmanship at Western Growers in 2007, he guided WG members through a devastating E. coli outbreak with spinach and salmonella poisoning with tomatoes. Through his stewardship, Western Growers leadership helped lead the establishment of the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement in California and Arizona. The Marketing Agreements have today become the model for produce safety and accountability.
From that initiative, it became obvious that all of the stakeholders, from field to fork, needed a platform to conduct transparent, collaborative food safety research. This resulted in the creation of the Center for Produce Safety (CPS), a collaboration that provides and shares ready-to-use, science-based solutions to prevent or minimize produce safety vulnerabilities. Today, CPS serves the ag community both domestically and abroad.
“When you look at the success of California agriculture, Steve is a true representative of why the ag community is as successful as it is today,” said Bonnie Fernandez-Fenaroli, CPS executive director. “He truly embodies passion and proactivity, and his commitment to food safety to benefit both the consumer and industry is unlike any other.”
Patricio has played an integral role in the development and growth of the CPS, including leading a significant fundraising campaign when he was its chairman that raised more than $12 million to fund research geared toward preventing foodborne illnesses. His efforts on food safety have had an international impact and continue to shape public policy.
“Steve has one of the brightest minds and quickest wits in the industry,” said Bob Gray, past WG chairman and former president/CEO of the California Ag Leadership Foundation. “He is a contributor of substance, and the expertise and competence he has brought regarding food safety and water have made major impacts for the industry.”
Patricio’s tenacity does not stop at food safety. Under the mentorship of Telles early in his career, Patricio found what he later would refer to as his number one hobby: water. At TRI Produce, Telles—who was a water attorney—involved young Patricio in the dealings of federal, state and local surface water contracts since the farm owned a hefty amount of land throughout the West.
“I needed to get involved to make sure we were compliant, and I came to realize how little people knew about their water and their rights to that water,” said Patricio. At the time, he did not know much about water rights either, but he started attending meetings about water contracts; engaged in conversations about the Central Valley Project; researched and read articles about water districts and bureaus; and listened intently to stories Telles would tell about his firm forming many of these districts and negotiating these water contracts. After years of listening and learning, his hobby became his passion.
In the mid-1990s, Telles and Patricio decided to launch an orientation program for their agribusinesses that focused exclusively on water rights. This was a first for the industry and something that was much needed.
“There was a continuous stream of growers approaching us asking for our help. We needed a steady supply of melons to grow our future and water was the key,” he said.
Patricio has spent countless hours throughout the years in lobbying meetings, press conferences and water debates advocating for a sustainable supply of water for farmers to grow the food that feeds the state, nation and world. In fact, while he was WG chairman, he was asked to join then-California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger at the San Luis Reservoir to call attention to the need for more surface water storage and stress the need for a comprehensive water solution.
“Steve has been a tireless advocate for agriculture, and his ability to turn some of the most tumultuous challenges that our industry has faced over the past few decades into opportunities is unmatched,” said Tom Nassif, WG president and CEO. “He has already left a tremendous legacy as someone who shoulders the responsibility of igniting change that advances the industry as a whole. It’s been a true honor to work alongside him all these years.”
To celebrate his accomplishments and passion for shaping the ag industry, WG will honor him with the 2018 Award of Honor during its Annual Meeting on October 30, 2018, in Palm Desert, CA. The Award of Honor is Western Growers’ highest recognition of industry achievement and is given to individuals who have contributed extensively to the agricultural community.
“I was speechless when I found out I was selected for this award,” remarked Patricio. “I never thought that, in the end of it all, I would be a farmer or involved in this honorable and wonderful world that I am so engaged in today. I often tell youth that your career chooses you, and because I followed the path life decided to take me on, I am proud to say that I am a farmer. I couldn’t imagine being in any other industry.”
The award will be presented during the Award of Honor Dinner Gala. There, Patricio will be celebrated by his wife, Nikki; children, Blake, Garrett and Ashley; grandchildren, Yale, Taylor, Peyton, Brooklyn, Carter, Paxton, Kennedy and Bryce; and peers and friends. To attend the ceremony, visit http://www.wgannualmeeting.com.
Join Western Growers
Western Growers members care deeply for the food they grow, the land they sustain, the people they employ, and the community in which they live.