By Tim Linden
Fred LoBue, Jr.
Chairman of the Board
LoBue Farms, Inc.
Member Since 2000 | Director Since 2000
When retiring Fred LoBue Jr. approached the subject of his life, he took to it in the same methodical way that largely defined the work he has done for the past 60 years. He began his produce industry career as a bookkeeper and has spent the past 55 years on the business side of the balance sheet for LoBue Farms. “For the purpose of this interview, I’ve divided my story into three sections,” he said. “My personal life. My career. And my service to the industry.”
His story begins in Porterville, CA, in 1940, where he was born and first became acquainted with the citrus industry, which has been his main pursuit almost ever since. His grandfather started the family citrus business in 1934. Fred’s father and his two brothers joined the family business and expanded it. Fred and several of his cousins followed suit, further expanding the grower-shipper company and then taking it back to its roots as solely a farming operation a couple of years ago.
But we’re ahead of ourselves. Fred Jr. remembers working on the farm when he was only 10 years old, driving the jeep down the grove as his grandfather sprayed the trees. He worked in the family operation through high school and knew from a very early age that it would be his lifetime passion. “I worked in the packing house when I was in high school and I just loved it,” he said. “It got in my blood.”
LoBue graduated from high school in 1958 as student body president. He first went to the College of the Sequoias and then on to San Jose State, where he received his degree in Industrial Management. “All through college I took classes that would help me run the business – marketing, accounting, investment classes, business finances. I even took an elementary computer class taught by IBM, which was located right down the road (from San Jose State).”
After college, LoBue got drafted and spent two years in military service stationed at Fort Lewis in Washington before he was able to come back to the San Joaquin Valley and start his citrus industry career in earnest. “In 1965, I went to work in the office learning all the clerical things from the bookkeeper.”
He soon took over that slot and spent many, many hours taking pencil to “reams and reams of paper” doing the all-important grower accounting work. LoBue Farms had many independent growers bringing fruit in every day during the season. It was a monumental task to log in every box, record the sales price, back out expenses and make the payments. “We did everything by hand. There were no computers.”
By this time, the company was called LoBue Brothers, with Fred Jr.’s father, Fred Sr., in charge of farming, Uncle Mario running the business side and Uncle Joe doing a bit of both. Fred Jr. actually worked under Mario and longtime company executive G.A. Wollenman, who ran the packing facility in Lindsay, CA. Fred’s brother tragically died in the mid-1960s, though several of his cousins and his brother-in-law joined the family business over the next decade or two.
By the mid-1970s, this third generation of the LoBue Farms family tree began buying their own citrus groves separately and in partnerships. Eventually, the family holdings grew to 1,000 acres. Fred Sr. died in 1980 with his nephew Robert LoBue taking over the farming side of the business. Fred. Jr., who already was CFO, officially became the president of LoBue Bros. Inc. in 1996. He credits the other members of the executive team for helping him tremendously and bringing the company to new heights as the new century dawned. “You couldn’t replace G.A. (Wollenman),” Fred said. “After he started slowing down and then eventually retired, we took more of a team effort approach.”
In the early 2000s, LoBue said the citrus operation was at its peak, always second or third in size behind Sunkist. LoBue Bros. had three packing facilities by then as well as a robust export business and represented many different growers. “Our average grower had 40 acres,” he said, proud of the family farm legacy that LoBue Bros. helped to perpetuate. “At our peak, we packed 4.5 million boxes a year. We were an important factor for quite a few years.”
He said the declining popularity of the Valencia orange caused LoBue Bros. to start to downsize. “We lost about 1.2 million boxes of Valencias,” he said, adding that corporate ownership of citrus acreage was another factor leading to the company’s decreased influence.
The advancing age of the partners as well as external issues such as higher labor costs and increased competition made for a tough decision a few years ago. LoBue said no member of the fourth generation was interested in talking over the operation and the partners did not want to invest the millions needed to upgrade and automate their packing facilities. In 2017, after more than 80 years as an independent citrus packer and marketer, the LoBue family merged these operations into a Sunkist packer/shipper, with LoBue Farms, Inc. continuing its citrus growing and farm management business. It grows mostly navels on its 1,000 acres but also has some mandarins, grapefruit, blood oranges and a specialty citrus item called Sumo, which LoBue described as a cross of a navel orange, a grapefruit and a tangerine.
As impressive as his business career is, LoBue has also left an out-sized mark on the many organization that he has served over the years. He announced his retirement from the Western Growers Board of Directors recently after 20 years of service. LoBue recalls that he first joined the Western Growers Board in 2000 when the Agricultural Producers Labor Committee merged with the much-larger trade association. He explained that Ag Producers, which was founded many years earlier, had a primary purpose of providing labor advice to citrus growers. Over the years, it expanded its suite of services to include health insurance, pensions plans and workers’ comp coverage. LoBue said merging with Western Growers was a great idea. Initially, WG gave Ag Producers several at large board seats and then carved out a district for the citrus grower community, with LoBue representing that industry sector for two decades.
Over the years, he was also a board member and chairman of California Citrus Mutual as well as the Citrus Avocado Pension Trust, and the California-Arizona Citrus League. He was also a founding director of a community bank and is active in many civic and church organizations.
During his years of services, LoBue became very involved in the political arena taking many trips to both Washington, D.C., and Sacramento to lobby on behalf of the industry. “My greatest honor was getting to shake hands with President Ronald Reagan,” he said.
He and his wife have four children, 12 grand children and one great grandchild. They have a second home in Morro Boy, which they occupy about one-third of the time and they love to travel by cruise ship. LoBue rattled off more than a dozen trips they have taken, including several of them more than once. “When we enjoy a trip, we like to take it again,” he said.
Though he has had a few disappointments and setbacks over his 80 years, LoBue has no regrets. “God has been very good to me,” he said.
While he is exiting the industry as a full-time occupant, he remains committed to his farm and the industry at large. “I see innovation and technology being a big part of the future and solving some of the challenges we have,” he said. “That’s the only way we are going to stay in business. Labor and water are still the biggest issues. As someone once said, if you don’t have labor, you don’t have a water problem. And if you don’t have water, you don’t have a labor problem.”
Speaking specifically of his efforts on behalf of the ag industry and his optimism for the future, LoBue said he has always been very impressed with how colleagues come together under the auspices of these industry organizations. “The big thing is how competitors mutually work together, partners in a common cause.”