Like many of his colleagues on the Western Growers Board of Directors, Mike Way grew up in Salinas, graduated from Salinas High School and went to college to major in ag business.
But he was not born with agriculture in his blood.
“I was born and raised in downtown Salinas,” he recalls. “My dad was City Attorney of Salinas, and my mom was a homemaker.”
Neither were born in Salinas as they moved there in 1965 specifically for his father to take that position. Three years later, Mike was born and, unfortunately, three years after that his father died. “I was raised by a single mom with the help of a lot of good friends,” Way said.
The agricultural community and lifestyle did appeal to the Salinas native and when he graduated from high school in 1983, he matriculated to California State University at Fresno to get ready for an ag career. Soon after graduation, Way was hired by Sun World in December of 1988; it is one of only two jobs he has held in his career.
“From Fresno, I moved to Riverside with Sun World and stayed there for two and a half years before they moved me to the desert in 1991,” he remembers.
About a year later, Chuck Hodges, Mark Nickerson and Carl Sam Maggio put together the group that eventually called itself Prime Time International. Way joined that team as a salesman. “We initially had a different company name (C.H. Sales),” he said, noting that the Prime Time moniker was hatched a few years later as the leadership determined it would hang its hat on peppers. “Initially we shipped an assortment of vegetables from the desert,” he said. “The plan was to be in the vegetable business for seven to eight months of the year and take four months off. That idea lasted about two weeks.”
Instead, the partnership began expanding its footprint and soon focused on green and colored peppers with deals in Mexico as well as California. Today and for the past 28 years, peppers have been Prime Time’s signature crop.
“We have peppers every day of the year,” Way said. “We grow peppers in the desert, Oxnard and Bakersfield in California and we have 13 locations in Mexico. We are the largest pepper shipper in North America.”
About five years ago, the shipper started an asparagus program that has grown to be about a quarter of the company’s total volume and also features year-round production sourcing from Mexico and Peru. But peppers still make up the lion’s share of business with about 60 percent of sales. Prime Time also has seasonal production of sweet corn, tomatoes and green beans.
In the 2000s, Way and Jeff Taylor became minority partners of the operation and in 2017, they became the managing partners. Just recently, the two partners completed the ownership shift and became co-owners with a majority stake in Prime Time.
Though Way said the co-owners do have a couple of oars in the water concerning new projects, their main emphasis is on keeping their core business going and profitable. “California agriculture is currently swimming upstream,” Way said. “The increasing cost of everything is making it very difficult to produce a profit. We have to figure out how to get freight rates back down so we can survive.”
But with that said, Way also noted that “I’m a full believer in cycles. Things will turn around.”
He added that there has to be a solution for California because there are no other alternatives. The company is heavily involved in Mexico when and where it can be, but he said that is not the solution for everything. “Mexico is not an easy place to do business and it’s not cheap. The biggest problem is lack of infrastructure and that is very expensive,” he said.
Way also added that the company has great growing partners in California—most notably the Bianco family—which makes continuing to make California work an integral part of the company’s strategy. “They are a big part of what we do.”
When Mike Way took his position on the WG Board, he joined a long list of directors that have had previous family members serve on the board. The WG Board is full of second and third generation families to serve the association. But Mike and Ellen Way are the first husband/wife team to be on the board. Ellen Way is an active participant in agriculture in her own right. She is the owner of Sanders/Way Ranch, an almond operation on land bought by her grandfather in the 1930s. She is also very active in politics including with the California Women for Agriculture. She served on the WG Board a few years ago for a two-year term. “Ellen is the busiest stay-at-home Mom that there is,” Way quipped.
The couple have two daughters: Julia, who graduated from the University of Kentucky on May 6 and is starting a nursing career in Dallas this month; and Elizabeth, a high school senior, who was in the midst of picking her college choice as her father was being interviewed in April.
When he has some spare time, Way enjoys golfing and is an active owner of racehorses.
He said his claim to horse racing fame is Hot Rod Charlie, who was the runner-up in the 2021 Kentucky Derby. Way and a group of friends started a race horse partnership about five years ago with Hot Rod Charlie being one of their foals. The partnership dissolved about three years ago with a few of the members retaining ownership to that very successful horse.
Of his current stable of horses, he said: “We’ve won a few stakes races and I have a few two-year-olds that look very promising.”
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