Steve Barnard is known to have a “take no prisoners” approach to many situations. In fact, he has heard that Western Growers and agriculture will be the target of some California Democratic legislators because of the association’s successful election efforts this November and his attitude is “bring them on.”
He said: “I have zero tolerance for bureaucrats and politicians and some of the things they try to do. I am not afraid of fighting them at all because I am not afraid to lose.”
This seems to be an attitude that was evident at a young age and honed over the years. Though he claims to no longer be the brash man that got him into the business, the same spirit is evident.
Barnard was raised the son of a farmer who grew both citrus and avocados in Ventura County. Though he wanted to get into the agricultural business, his father told him there just wasn’t room for the two of them on the family farm and he needed to find his own thing to do. “After high school I went to Cal Poly (San Luis Obispo) and got a degree in ag business. Each summer (during college) I worked somewhere else in agriculture. One year I worked for Sunkist and another year I worked for my dad. I then worked for the Newhall Land and Farming Company and also spent a summer with a tomato harvesting operation for cannery tomatoes.”
This gave him great experience but no obvious career choice. “I knew I didn’t want to do any of those things,” he quipped. “The one thing I hadn’t tried was fresh produce.”
Ever the optimist, Barnard prepared one resume and sent it to the president of Santa Clara Produce, a regional grower-shipper in Ventura County. “I told him I was going to be back in town at 11 a.m. on a particular day and could we meet,” he continued.
The meeting was held but still a job was not offered until the college-educated Barnard said he would do anything, including loading trucks. Two weeks later, on March 31, 1975, he was on the loading docks of Santa Clara Produce working in the cooler for a gross pay of $125 per week.
Eventually he moved up the company ladder and began running the harvesting crews of the various grower operations. He did that for several years, following the seasons and spending a lot of time away from home, which started to be an issue when he got married in 1980. By then Santa Clara had gotten into the avocado business, representing several growers and packing the fruit in a converted vegetable shed.
Barnard was helping the guy running the avocado operation connect with local growers, so when that manager retired, he was offered the position. “I was tired of being away from home so I accepted the job. That was about 1981.”
About a year later, Barnard had learned a lot about avocados and decided that Santa Clara wasn’t running the operation properly. “I went in and told the owners we should change the operation so it would run better and, not only that, I should become a part owner.”
This time his brashness was not rewarded. Santa Clara turned him down and Barnard started looking for partners to start his own avocado operation. In 1983, he and a new set of partners had raised $900,000 and established Mission Produce. Today the company has operations in six countries and distribution facilities throughout the United States. It has become one of the largest avocado operations in the world.
And Barnard is very bullish about its future. “Avocados have registered 10 percent growth for the last 10 years and they are still growing. We’ve doubled per capita consumption in the United States from two to four pounds per person but in Mexico, they are at 22 pounds (per capita consumption). We have a lot of room to grow and I am not only talking about the United States. Avocado consumption is growing all over the world.”
He said California will continue to be a factor in the business though its percentage of total sales will continue to fall as volume from other countries continues to grow. “California will remain the same size — somewhere between 300 and 400 million pounds annually — but that becomes a smaller part of the industry as consumption grows.”
Total consumption in the United States, which only topped one billion pounds a few years ago, will soon top two billion pounds. “California will still be important, though I expect production to shift north (with the majority being in Ventura County) because of the cost of water (in San Diego County).”
Barnard first got involved with the Western Growers Board of Directors in the mid-1990s and has been on the board ever since. He moved into an officer position several years ago as a way of giving back to the association. With the avocado business changing dramatically over the past decade, he said it was difficult to make the decision to allocate the time to be chairman of the board, but he is looking forward to the opportunity. “It should be very interesting. I have had the opportunity as a member of the Executive Committee to meet with politicians and others in Washington and get a behind-closed-doors look at how things operate. I’ve met a lot of good people and some that were not so good. We’ve got some big issues ahead of us — most notably immigration reform and the Farm Bill — to deal with this year. I do think we will get some things done.”
He said comprehensive immigration reform shouldn’t be that difficult. “It’s not that complicated. We need to keep it simple. Bring workers into the United States, give them a legal right to work but not citizenship. Pay them good wages and give them health care insurance while they are working. They should have the right to apply for citizenship but they shouldn’t automatically be on that path. We have a manager who works for us in Mexico who recently applied and was granted dual citizenship. I don’t know why that system can’t work.”
He also looks forward to strengthening the independent expenditure committee that Western Growers founded this year as a way to target unfriendly legislators during the election cycle. “We were two for two and we should continue moving forward. It is a very good strategy.”
As far as juggling a very busy business schedule in the pursuit of increased avocado sales with his role as chairman of the board, Barnard says it is all about planning. “It’s all a matter of getting it on the schedule. If it’s on the calendar, I’ll be there; just don’t surprise me.”
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.