January 6, 2015

2015 Chairman of the Board: Vic Smith Takes the Helm

Vic Smith grew up in southern Colorado, the son of a lawyer without ever considering agriculture as a career.

He hung around the towns of Alamosa and San Luis enjoying a normal childhood and then went to the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he studied economics and business law.  His father was a practicing attorney who served a stint as a prosecutor and then went into private practice as a civil law attorney.  Agriculture was one of the main businesses in that region of Colorado, so his father did have various agricultural clients.  In the late 1960s, the elder Smith represented Sky Valley Ice and Refrigeration in a civil case, which led to him purchasing the firm and renaming it Skyview Cooling in 1971.

In the meantime, Vic, who had worked for his father during the summers while attending college, graduated from the university and began a career in the real estate business in Denver.  “By 1976, my father had expanded into Yuma and wanted to open up a facility in the Salinas Valley.  He asked me to join him, and I did.”

The younger Smith began by splitting time between Yuma and Salinas. It wasn’t long before he found the agricultural business to be very exciting and also fell in love with Yuma.

Throughout the 1970s, Skyview Cooling remained strictly a cooling and distribution company, working with most of the large California and Arizona shippers.  The firm had more than a half dozen facilities in various locations in Colorado, Arizona, California and New Mexico.  This is when Vic learned to fly.  “I’d start out the day in Alamosa (Colorado), fly to New Mexico for lunch, head to Willcox after that and end up in Yuma.”

While the cooling and distribution end of the business was satisfying, John Smith was born on a farm in Missouri and liked the idea of working the soil.  In 1982, the firm dipped its toe on the grower side of the ledger by beginning a specialty crop farm on the Sonoran side of San Luis, below Yuma.  “We started with asparagus, green onions, and radishes,” Vic recalls.

That small farm expanded a bit over the years and in 1991, the company started JV Farms.  Expansion has continued and today the JV Smith Companies farm about 19,000 acres, including 3,000 in Colorado, 8,000 in Mexico and another 8,000 in the Yuma area.

Though the firm is a shipper of its Colorado potatoes, it has largely remained a grower throughout the years and not gotten into the vegetable marketing business.  Vic said that was just a prudent business decision based on the fact that as proprietors of many different coolers, the JV Smith Companies did business with most of the shippers in the west.  Being a grower for those same shippers expands the company’s business model without directly competing with its customers.

Vic said his deals with other shippers are as varied as the number of contracts he has.  Each deal is different.  He often partners with different shippers in a specific crop and also grows lots of crops on contract, either based on acreage or the actual volume produced.  This different business model allows the company to diversify and spread out its risk.  “We look to where we can add value for our customer,” he said, making it very clear that, in his case, the customer is the shipper.

However, he does not lose sight of the shipper’s customer, be it a retail or foodservice buyer or the ultimate consumer.  He said he often partners with shippers as they work with a customer to make sure as a grower he is producing exactly what is called for.  “We are a very valuable link in the supply chain,” he added.

Almost one of the first things John Smith did after forming his firm was to join Western Growers.  Vic Smith continued that membership when he took over the top spot of the company in the early 1990s.  He remembers in early 2006, he attended a Western Growers outreach meeting in Yuma and decided to get further involved with the association.  He soon became a member of the board and moved into the officer ranks three years ago.

At Western Growers board meetings, Vic is often gently chided for his political affiliation, as he is known to be a Democrat in a sea of Republicans.  He believes it is a service to the industry to have different viewpoints represented on the Western Growers board.  “We have to be pragmatic and be aware of political realities,” he said.  “We often advocate on issues that aren’t partisan and we need as many people as we can on both sides of the aisle.”

But while he doesn’t shy away from his political affiliation, he does say on the vast majority of issues, especially those dealing with agricultural concerns, his viewpoint is very much in line with most agricultural producers.  He calls himself a centrist.

As he moves into the top volunteer position at Western Growers in 2015, Smith plans to be very active as the association gets more proactively involved on the science and technology front.  Western Growers is curently involved in a strategic alliance to link agriculture with technology experts from the Silicon Valley.  Smith said as the ag industry moves forward, it has to be able to create more with less as natural resources are dwindling while needs are increasing.  He is very excited to be part of a new direction being championed by Western Growers to invest in the industry’s future.

Vic and his wife, Karen, have three children.  Kyle, 31, (pictured on the cover with his father) works in the family farming operation while both Kristen, 30, and Clayton, 20, are in the Los Angeles area involved in the entertainment business.