By Ann Donahue
There is—perpetually, it seems—an extensive menu of issues that face the agriculture industry. There are problems that can be ordered up at breakfast, lunch, dinner, and even for a midnight snack when sleep doesn’t come easy: water, labor, regulations, immigration, pesticides, shipping, transportation, COVID. And then maybe you can have something like climate change for dessert?
For Albert Keck, the newly-appointed 2022 Western Growers Chairman of the Board of Directors, a major concern of ag can’t be chewed over, and can be summed up in two words.
Keck, the President of Hadley Date Gardens, Inc. in Thermal, Calif., and a third-generation farmer, is concerned that the laundry list of issues that have faced ag for decades is receding into the background, becoming an ominous perpetual hum that accompanies every business decision but never actually gets silenced.
It’s time, Keck said, for that to change.
“It’s like, what’s new in the last 20 years?” Keck asked. “Labor and water are never-ending. They’ve always been there. It’s bad because it seems like they are becoming white noise. But coming out of this COVID time in our country, we’re starting to realize how vulnerable we all are in our industry and our individual businesses. All of our jobs are kind of in this precarious position where if you don’t get a truckload of a key component in, you can’t get a harvest out the door. That’s interesting, because we used to take that for granted, and now I think people are starting to realize just how critical that is to our existence.”
The white noise that existed up to and through the pandemic needs to become more of a progressive drumbeat, one that those in the agriculture industry can follow to unite and rally into creating concrete, real-world solutions. “Yeah, I guess we always have a self-centered view of life, but it certainly seems like things are really bad right now,” Keck said. “But I’m confident we will rise to meet those challenges and continue the fight. I’m looking forward to my time in the hot seat.”
It’s a response born of optimism and motivation that comes from Keck’s years at the forefront of the business. A lifelong native of the Coachella Valley, Keck is Chairman of the California Date Administrative Committee and the California Date Commission. He was elected to the Western Growers board in 2015, and previously served as Senior Vice Chairman. Outgoing Western Growers Chairman Ryan Talley passed the gavel to Keck during the Western Growers Annual Meeting in November 2021 at the Fairmont Grand Del Mar in San Diego.
“Our industry is grappling with issues and challenges more daunting than ever, and it seems the perfect time for a happy warrior to step into the role of Chairman of the Western Growers Board of Directors,” said Western Growers President and CEO Dave Puglia. “Albert Keck is indeed a happy warrior, always looking to get after the toughest industry issues with a limitless supply of creative energy and imagination. I look forward to working with him to press forward against, or around, the obstacles confronting our members.”
“I know it’ll be a lot of work, but one thing I think is that all of us who are on the Board—especially once we get into a slot on the Executive Committee—there’s no lack of passion for the cause,” Keck said. “We are pumped up. The more time I spend at Western Growers with all the people there, our leaders and our staff, the more impressed I am and the more grateful I am for what they are doing. I know I’m not alone. I occupy that Chair, but it really is the entire Board and the leadership at Western Growers that is at work. I am excited about that, and I’m looking forward to being in the position to participate in a much more focused and intensive level even than I have in the past few years.”
Besides Keck, the other newly-installed members of the 2022 Western Growers Executive Committee are: Puglia; Senior Vice Chairman Stuart Woolf, President and CEO of Woolf Farming & Processing; Vice Chairman Rob Yraceburu, President of Wonderful Orchards; Treasurer Neill Callis, General Manager of Turlock Fruit Company; Executive Secretary Don Cameron, Vice President of Terranova Ranch; Talley, in his role as Past Chairman and Ron Ratto, President of Ratto Bros. in his role as Past Past Chairman.
“I have been fortunate beyond words to serve my first two years in this position alongside Ryan Talley, who led us as Chairman through a historic pandemic with calm confidence and wise counsel,” Puglia said. “As the only person to serve two years as WG’s Chairman, Ryan has given far more time and effort for the greater good than could be anticipated. We are enormously grateful to him and to his family.”
“It’s certainly daunting to assume the Chairmanship of Western Growers,” Keck said. “The litany of people that have gone before me—it’s just crazy.”
Keck hopes that as we evolve from the frantic pandemic stage of COVID to a managed endemic stage, we can create a new productive reality. “We’ve been in this surreal spin cycle for going on two years. It’s nice to think we’re coming out of this malaise that we’re in. That’s our hope, but we’ve had these false starts plenty this past year, right?” he said. “I refuse to accept this new normal as the new reality—no, it’s not. It’s still surreal and dystopic. It’s not our new normal. It’s messed up, and we are desperately needing to get out of it. That being said, the challenges we face are no less than what they’ve always been.”
The key to that, he said, is being clear, concise, and forthright in spreading the message to the public about the real-world needs of the grower and shipper community. “I think we have a good story to tell, and I think people are becoming much more aware of the essentials in their lives,” Keck said. “I think the opportunities that we’re going to have through these challenges are something we really need to key into in our messaging. I think it will open some doors to a lot of real good discussions, and, hopefully, policies that help ensure our future.”
Counterintuitively, it may just be that the horrors and sadness of the COVID crisis provided a turning point towards good. For the first time, Americans became aware of the complexities involved in getting food to the table and commodities on shelves.
“I think we’re supplying them with an essential need in food, and I think there is a huge opportunity there that is going to elevate our message that we matter,” he said. “We are a key part of everyone’s lives, and there are a lot of vulnerabilities in the supply chain that can affect everyone here in our country. There’s going to be some interesting things that come from that, and that may be a shifting of our awareness as a society and as a culture. I think Western Growers is in a good position to capitalize on that.”