Date: Jul 21, 2022
Magazine:
July/August 2022

Director Profile

John Powell Jr., Peter Rabbit Farms, Coachella, Calif.

Director 1996-2012, 2022  |  Member since 1977 (Cardinal Distributing Co.)

John Powell Jr. first joined the Western Growers Board of Directors when he just entered his 30s and was one of the younger chairmen when he took the helm in 2005. During his first stint as a director representing the Coachella Valley district, Powell served from 1996 to 2012. He was preceded on the board by his father John Powell Sr., who was a director from 1983 to 1995, and was elected chairman of the board in 1988. John Jr. recently rejoined the WG Board and has kept his name on the ballot for re-election.

Powell explained that he very much enjoyed his first run on the WG board and is ready to serve again if his colleagues in the desert district are like-minded. He admits that two Western Growers officials spurred his interest. “I live a few doors down from Albert Keck [the current chairman] and I thought it would be fun to serve on the board with my neighbor. Plus, I was the chairman in 2005 when Dave Puglia was hired,” he said. “I’m excited that he is the President and CEO and I’d like to help him in any way I can as a director.”

As far as getting elected to the board this year, Powell said he leaves that up to his district colleagues who will determine if he is the best candidate. “I don’t plan to campaign,” he said. “I think the best thing to do is be a good steward for the industry. I think that is a characteristic that all board members should bring to the table.”

He is also excited about the diverse group of people on the current WG board and welcomes the opportunity to serve the industry again in that capacity. “It is not a homogeneous group,” he said. “It represents a good cross section of our industry.”

As he looks back at his career and the industry he was born into, Powell said there have been many changes. On the top of the list, the “family business” concept that dominated the industry for generations is changing with consolidations, corporate ownership and private equity companies acquiring more and more family farms every year.

While he notes that change, Powell believes it does give a company like Peter Rabbit Farms a competitive advantage. Necessarily, he said corporate farms and private equity ownership have many levels of leadership. “When you are family business, the operators, managers and decisionmakers are the same people. I think it is a great model, especially for fresh produce.”

And make no mistake about it, Peter Rabbit Farms has been a family business since Palmer Powell (John Jr.’s grandfather) started the company as Cardinal Distributing in 1950. Powell was a wholesaler in San Francisco in the 1930s and ‘40s as a partner in Sunrise Produce when he saw the trend toward direct sales from shippers to retailers. He started the Coachella Valley operation and moved the family down to the desert a couple of years later.

Palmer Powell was 49 years old when he became a grower-shipper and his son, John Powell Sr., was a teenager. After graduating from University of Southern California in the late 1950s, John Sr. joined his dad and worked alongside of him until the elder Powell passed away in 1988. “He died in the saddle, working to the end,” said John Jr.

John Jr. and his sister, Suzanne, and brother, Steve, followed the same route as their father. Each one of them joined the company after graduating from college. Suzanne Powell also went to USC and then joined the firm as director of sales marketing in the mid-1980s. She retired in 2006. John Jr. graduated in 1987 from Stanford while Steve got his degree from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in 1989.

“When each of us came aboard full time, we took positions based on need,” said John Jr. “I became the inside guy doing a lot of the internal business management work while Steve became the outside guy running the operations side.”

The two have remained in those roles ever since. John Powell Sr. retired in 2003, turning over the company to his offspring. When Suzanne retired, the two sons became 50/50 partners. “I think one of the keys to our success is that we have never been at loggerheads,” said John. “A lot of times family businesses don’t work when there are two heads at the table. What happens when you are deadlocked? That’s never happened to us.”

Today, three of the four members of the fourth generation have come aboard and John says “I look forward to welcoming my daughter (Nicole) into the business sometime in the future.”

John’s son Jake is involved as are Steve’s sons, Collin and Garret. All four children are in their late 20s or early 30s. The three members of that group are in management positions that involve decision-making but are not yet in senior management roles plotting the future of Peter Rabbit Farms. That is still the domain of John Jr. and Steve, who, at 57 and 55, still have many years of work life ahead of them.

John Jr. believes the future is still bright for Coachella Valley farming but acknowledges that there are significant challenges. The valley thrives on water from the Colorado River and that is certainly a topic of concern. “Farming has never been a sure thing,” he said. “I don’t think anyone has a crystal ball that can tell us what’s going to happen to Colorado River water over the next five years, but I think we are in a good position to continue to grow the high quality crops that we are producing.”

As the company name suggests, the carrot crop is the top commodity for Peter Rabbit Farms, as it has been for decades. The company also grows lemons and has robust bell pepper and leafy greens programs as well. It markets its lemons through Sunkist and its carrots are grown for Bolthouse Farms. Peter Rabbit Farms also grows crops for other shippers, including winter vegetables for Ocean Mist Farms. It also has a team to handle sales of its own label. Over the years, the grower-shipper has altered its product mix as it dropped its sweet corn production years ago because it didn’t fit with its commodity mix and within the last five years eliminated its table grape acreage as an economic decision. “A lot of the table grapes in the valley have been replaced with lemons,” Powell said.

He does note that there will come a time when the next generation has to take control and determine how they will make the family business work for them. With potentially four members in leadership roles, Powell acknowledges that they will also have to figure out how to traverse potential deadlocks and create a workable business plan. But he is convinced that the foundation of Peter Rabbit Farms can potentially support the next generation and beyond. “There will be lot of challenges in the future that will be on their shoulders. They will have to look at the trends and it will be up to them to stay ahead of those trends.”

John Jr. and Steve did insist that each of their children get a four-year college degree or the equivalent and work for two years elsewhere before making the family business their career.

Powell is energized and feels fortunate that all four members of the fourth generation did go off to college and have returned to the Coachella Valley to pursue their life goals.

 

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